After a distinguished playing and coaching career with Wasps, Leicester, London Irish and England Saxons, former lock forward George Skivington has taken on the challenge of transforming Gloucester from plucky losers into winners. Kingsholm’s new head coach tells NEALE HARVEY how he’s going about it.
It’s been good, but very busy! There’s a lot of new faces and names to get to know, as well as how the club works – the strengths that are already in place and the bits that need tweaking and moving in a slightly different direction. It’s been really positive, though, because there are some great people here. Gloucester’s a massive rugby club and it’s a really passionate city with real passion for the club. That obviously comes with the history and heritage and I’m trying to take in as much of that as I can. I’m fully aware that it’s not a quick process but it’s a great opportunity and I’m grateful to be here.
Gloucester’s attacking game is great and they’ve been an attacking rugby team for a long time and done some really good things in the past. There’s a big demand in Gloucester that the rugby team is a success and, from my perspective coming in, I’ve been talking to the players about their strengths and what they think they can be stronger at, and we’re taking a fluid approach to that. If we can get the weaker bits a bit stronger, hopefully it will lead to a team that knows where it wants to go and we can build off the back of that. What’s gone on before has happened and the club obviously felt it was time for change and a different emphasis – maybe a change of character, however you want to call it. There’s a lot of good stuff at the club but also lots of other bits that I’m talking to the players and coaches about how to make the shifts we need to become that winning team.
Guys made decisions to leave for different reasons, but that’s fine. There were a few holes that needed to be fixed quickly so we were lucky with the quality of people available to us and it was relatively straightforward to ask if they fancied being part of this. Those three were quick to say ‘yes’ and there’s an interesting dynamic now where there are guys, including myself and other coaches, who are new to the club, but it’s also an exciting time.
Covid-19 has presented challenges over training and some of the new faces only met each other for the first time last week because before that we’d been training in separate groups, so it’s been a bit crazy but we’ve got three weeks now to put it all together before we start playing again. We’ve still got a few holes to fill but the important thing now is we bring in the right people, do our homework and build a squad and staff that’s here for the long-term. It’s not just about quick fixes, rugby’s all about people and relationships and it’s important that you spend time on who you bring in and that people want to be part of it for the right reasons. That process will take as long as it takes.
Kingy’s a great signing for us. We were lucky with a bit of timing that fell into place but I’ve obviously known Alex a long time and he’s a good coach whose track record speaks for itself. He’s a very open-minded coach with a great skillset and he’ll bring so much to an already exciting backline in terms of offering different challenges and pushing players in different directions to get them thinking about the game and really pushing their skillsets beyond what they’ve been doing.
He’s spent time in France and done a bit of moving around seeing different environments while enjoying lots of success in places like Clermont, Northampton and Montpellier. He was a highly successful player with Wasps as well so his understanding of the game is huge and for me to have him working alongside me at Gloucester is brilliant. All our backs are excited about tapping into that knowledge.
Danny’s got a great skillset, there’s no doubt about that and he understands the game really well. Him and Kingy will be really good together because they’ve known each other since Alex was a senior pro at Wasps and Danny was coming through. Danny learned a load off Alex and he’s had many of his own experiences since then so they’ll bounce ideas off each other really well. The good thing about Gloucester, though, is that we’ve also got Lloyd Evans and Billy Twelvetrees as part of our fly-half options, both of whom offer that leadership role in the backs. There’s also a young lad called George Barton coming through the academy so we’ve got a really good group of 10s there who will listen and learn off Kingy, push hard with each other and fight for that starting spot.
I get on well with Danny. He’s a student of the game who enjoys talking rugby and I enjoy talking rugby as well. He knows very well that he’ll have to earn his spot in the team, though, and that’s the beauty of me coming in fresh as a coach – everything’s laid bare and whoever earns the right to play will play, and that’s the way it will be. That’s the great thing about having people of the calibre I’ve mentioned, guys who are all fighting for a starting spot under a new coaching team.
Dom was a youngster at Wasps when I was there and he’s known around the game as a quality person. He really understands the game and is massively keen to make a dent in coaching now. He’s well suited to what we want to do and his hunger and enthusiasm to prove himself will be great for Gloucester. I’ve got a huge amount of time and respect for the guy and although injuries hindered his playing career a bit, he was a fantastic centre. His mind for the game has transferred into coaching and we’re really lucky to have him coming to be part of it.
Yes, I think I’ve got a good bit of experience under my belt now and I’m pretty confident I understand how the game should be played in my own eyes. I’m not standing here saying I know it all, this is my first head coach role and I’d never say that anyway, but what I would say is I’ve learned some valuable lessons over the last six years of being in different coaching environments with Ealing, Samoa and London Irish. I’ve been around some really great guys who’ve given me a huge amount of learning, experience and responsibility and my ideals are shaped around that. I’ve been lucky to be around some high-calibre people and you take what’s good, leave what you don’t agree with and blend it all together. Again, having someone like Alex King come in who’s so experienced, you can bounce things off each other and eventually we’ll come up with an identity and what we think is the right way for Gloucester to play with the players we’ve got.
My first experience of coaches at Wasps was Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards so as a young lad that wasn’t a bad starting point! As a player I had Ian McGeechan and Richard Cockerill, too, and I’ve gone through all sorts of regimes since moving into coaching. At London Irish, we had a few different coaches but Declan Kidney and Les Kiss were great for me.
They were brilliant in sharing ideas and showing how coaching dynamics can work and you just pick things up from everyone. I could name a long list of people and I’m very fortunate that I’ve got some good people I speak to on the phone regularly who are there to give advice if necessary.
You mix it all up, take the things you believe in and come up with what you think is the right way to play. There’s no perfect formula and it would be foolish to try and impose a style until you understand your team, the personalities in it and the skillsets they possess. Ultimately, I want to understand Gloucester and things will evolve from there.
We didn’t know each other at all before this but we’ve got very close in a short period. We’ve spent a lot of time together and talk a lot. He’s a great bloke who’s very honest and from that point of view we’ll work well together. We’ve already been under the pump making decisions and that will continue, so our relationship will be really important. We’ll see eye-to-eye on some stuff but maybe not on other bits, but we’ve been open with each other about that from day one and it’s important to do that before you start working with someone.
Browny was a great player who at one time managed the most successive starts for the club – something like 87 – so he was definitely durable and probably should have won more England caps. We had some good second row battles and he probably won them more often than I did, but having another lineout nause there will be good for me to bounce a few ideas off. As for the rest of it, I’m very confident that we’re aligned on what this club wants and Browny will be a big part of that, along with our CEO Lance Bradley. They’ve brought me in and backed me and it’s a good starting point that we’re invested in each other.
I’m not a financial expert, I’m just a coach, but the landscape has changed massively because what wasn’t a financially stable model anyway has been made worse by Covid. But if we are being real about it, a lot more people outside rugby have suffered than within it, so this is a reset of rugby and while there’s been a lot for people to get their heads around regarding salary caps changing, wage cuts and expectations for people in future, we just have to deal with it. Clubs will make decisions around squad sizes and budgets and clubs will approach it in different ways, but that’s a challenge you’re presented with and it’s one you must embrace.
Covid’s provided an interesting dynamic because until last week we hadn’t been able to do any team meetings, train together or even shake hands and get to know each other properly. We’re going to roll into nine games with only three weeks of proper training behind us, with short breaks between some of the games as well, which is going to be demanding on the squad and a new coaching team who are still feeling their way into it. Equally, though, it’s a great opportunity for the players to say, ‘This is who I am, this is what I’m about, now pick me’ and I think it will be fast and furious with a lot of pressure.
This game is all about challenges and by the end of these nine games we’ll all understand each other pretty clearly, which will allow us to roll into next season knowing what we want to be, who the leaders are and what out starting XV is going to look like. This period will test all facets but it’s a fantastic opportunity for players to stamp their mark.
There’s a good understanding of the changes made and where the club wants to go, but we’ve not set any specific short-term targets. There have been so many changes on and off the field that while everyone wants to be successful and that’s the target for every team, it’s more important for us to put the foundations in place for the future now and try to get things organised and work out exactly what this team stands for. Once that’s in place and everyone’s clear, then you can start to build on it.
Everyone talks to you about philosophies but I honestly do think that you have to understand your players – and I learned that the most when I coached Samoa in 2015. You can go in with pre-conceived ideas of how you want things to be, but players might have other strengths and sometimes that’s physicality, sometimes it’s athleticism and sometimes it’s flair. If I was to come into Gloucester now and say I want to play like this or that and then you find you haven’t got the players to do it, you’ll just shoot yourself in the foot.
What I definitely don’t want to do at Gloucester is take away the attacking rugby because the guys here are great at what they do, so we’ve got to find a way of harnessing that while playing winning rugby at the same time. I’ve played at Kingsholm enough times to know how passionate the fans are about that, so I’ll be doing my best not to disappoint them.