GLOUCESTER have been at the epicentre of the coronavirus storm threatening to knock the Premiership from its moorings, although a large part of the buffeting that Kingsholm has taken in the last couple of months appears to have been self-inflicted.
It has centred on the departures of head coach Johan Ackermann and director of rugby David Humphreys. However, disenchantment with the culture that has taken root at the club over the last 20 years runs deep among many former Gloucester players.
This is underlined in our front page story last week where one of the club’s great talismen, Mike Teague, has demanded that any memorabilia relating to him at Kingsholm be returned.
Unlike Teague, neither Ackermann nor Humphreys are Gloucester born and bred, with the big South African brought in to join the Ulsterman at the start of the 2017-18 season. Until Ackermann’s arrival, Gloucester’s record had been mediocre. Their last appearance in the Premiership play-offs had come almost a decade earlier, in 2011, and since then they had only finished above eighth place in the table on one occasion.
In his first season in charge the former Springbok lock took them up to seventh, securing qualification for the European Cup for the first time in five years.
Ackermann did even better last season, taking Gloucester to a third-place finish, again securing European Cup qualification. Although they lost to eventual champions, Saracens, in the play-offs, the club were re-energised, playing an attractive, effective brand of rugby that had Gloucester fans believing that after years in the doldrums, the club were at last starting to make headway again as a force in the English game.
This season, before the pandemic lockdown, Gloucester were not living up to the previous season’s billing. They were more inconsistent, managing just four wins against nine losses, and had dropped to ninth in the table. The upside was that with almost half the season left to play, and no threat of relegation with Saracens already down, Gloucester were not heading for the rocks.
There are only nine points separating them from fourth-placed Northampton, and, given the unpredictability of results in the Premier- ship their season was by no means a lost cause.
There was, however, strife behind the scenes where a power struggle was brewing, which had its genesis in Gloucester owner, Martin St Quinton, appointing a new chief executive, Lance Bradley.
Over the course of this season, it has emerged that Bradley – a former MD of Mitsubishi Motors (UK), who was appointed last summer – had been given a brief to reshape the club.
Bradley’s appointment came with a ringing endorsement from St Quinton, which made it clear that he was to bring about whatever changes were required, and had the full backing of his boss.
St Quinton said: “We are delighted to have Lance step up… we conducted a very thorough search for our new CEO, but it’s not often you find someone who is not only an enthusiastic rugby follower, but also an experienced and outstanding business leader who also has experience on the club’s board. I believe Lance is the ideal man to lead us forward.”
It was not long before Bradley was making waves. One of the biggest of these came pre-lockdown with the decision to bring England star winger Jonny May back to Gloucester. The move to re-sign May was made by St Quinton and Bradley according to a number of sources close to the club, with Ackermann and Humphreys presented with a done-deal over which they had no influence. Bradley denies this.
Was it a vanity signing? While May is one of the best wingers in the world, Gloucester are bursting at the seams with talented back three players.
They have two of the brightest young wing talents in Europe in Ollie Thorley and Louis Rees-Zammit, as well as established names like Charlie Sharples, Matt Banahan, Chris Harris, Jason Woodward, Tom Marshall, Tom Hudson, and another up-and-coming youngster, Tom Seabrook.
The signing of May in addition to a tally of nine players covering wing/full-back was greeted with incredulity by many Gloucester supporters. One of them told The Rugby Paper: “It is absolutely ridiculous. Jonny May is a very good winger, but we needed another back three player like a hole in the head. What Gloucester needed much more was to bolster the pack by signing a mighty tight-head, or great lock.”
Bradley has been quite open about his concern over results this season. He said in a recent interview that on the playing side he soon discovered that “things weren’t right”. He added that he was worried at the start of the season that Gloucester could be relegated – even though the Saracens decision soon made those fears redundant.
He commented that he found the outlook on the playing side that the club had not been relegated before, and therefore would not be relegated this time, “concerning”, especially when they were losing matches, and doing so, “in the same way, every week”.
Bradley explains that as chief executive he wanted “to talk to everyone”, and when he started talking to players that the feedback made him ask difficult questions on the rugby side. He said that these were not well received, and it is clear that the rift between him and Ackermann and Humphreys grew.
Bradley admits that it started the process that led to both men leaving the club, commenting: “It played out like it did.”
One Gloucester source put more flesh on the bones of that spare description of the strains between Bradley and Ackermann, with the South African dropping the bombshell that he was leaving the club in May before taking up a new role in the Japanese Top League with the Red Hurricanes in July.
“Johann Ackermann is a very committed coach, but this season within a short space of time he knew the new regime wasn’t for him. When people with little knowledge of the playing side of the game were talking to senior players about how they were coached and trained, and started to interfere, it is undermining. You cannot have that as a coach – especially when you have a good record.”
The parting of the ways with Humphreys soon afterwards centred on the former Ireland fly-half’s belief that the club should look for an external coach with a strong record to replace Ackermann, with former Wallaby coach Michael Cheika, Wales assistant coach Rob Howley, and experienced former Wasps coach Dai Young among the candidates.
However, the Gloucester board, with St Quinton and Bradley at the helm, wanted to go for a more low-profile appointment, prompted by the financial slashing of costs made necessary by the suspension of the Premiership during the Covid pandemic.
This chimes with a view expressed on social media by many Gloucester fans that the departure of Ackermann and Humphreys is part of a wider cost-cutting exercise at the club, which will no doubt be helped by two Springboks, Franco Mostert and Franco Marais, joining Ackermann in Japan, along with Owen Williams and Tom Marshall.
It is widely rumoured that when the salary cap was lowered to £5m, Gloucester were willing to see it reduced further, with St Quinton, who has horse racing interests, and is also chairman of Cheltenham Racecourse, wanting to keep a tight rein on the club’s finances.
The upshot was the announcement this week of the appointment of the London Irish forwards coach and former captain, George Skivington, as Gloucester head coach.
Bradley revealed that he had consulted the senior playing group – which includes fly-half Danny Cipriani, captain Willi Heinz, and lock Ed Slater – on what they saw as the new head coach’s most important attributes. Bradley suggests this is novel, but it happens at most professional clubs. Bradley said he then ran an interview process and went back to the senior playing group with two candidates, which was unanimous in picking Skivington.
He added the rider that the appointment of the former England Saxons lock, who also played with distinction for Wasps and Leicester, was not “a democratic election”. This was probably because the chief executive recognised that he was in danger of looking like a cipher for player power.
Bradley said that he believes if players feel they are part of the decision they are much more likely to try to make it work. While that may add up, the part that might not is how good Bradley is at divining which coaches and players are crucial to Gloucester’s success, including which forwards can be brought in to improve the pack.
Having extended his remit to playing matters Bradley will also have to work out how to maximise on May’s arrival without Rees-Zammit or Thorley, or the rest of his back three brigade, becoming disenchanted by spending extended periods inactive on the sidelines.
Skivington, 37, is a bright young English coach, and he comes into the job with the benefits for Bradley of a massive saving in his coaching budget.
The new coach is also familiar with two of Gloucester’s leading senior players, having known Cipriani as a former team-mate at Wasps, and Slater from when they played together at Leicester.
Indeed, Cipriani tweeted: “This is the most exciting announcement of a head coach I’ve seen in rugby, foreword thinking. The type of man you build a club around. Very grateful I’ll get to play out my last years under him.”
If that realignment is a success, and Skivington gets the buy-in from a Gloucester squad that is not short of talent, then Bradley and St Quinton might get the result they want.
Yet, there is also no avoiding that the yardstick by which Skivington – and Bradley – will soon be measured by Gloucester fans, is whether they can match Ackermann’s brief but impressive record at Kingsholm.
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