Dean Ryan is realistic about Worcester’s place in the Premiership pecking order. The Warriors are perched precariously on the lower rungs of what is rapidly becoming a two-tier league, and they have been stuck there for almost a decade despite the hackneyed mantra that England’s top table is so competitive anyone can beat anyone.
It explains why Ryan is not offering the fans at Sixways, or the directors who appointed him after the April axing of Richard Hill, a quick fix – especially when his first Premiership game in charge of the Warriors is a visit to Welford Road today to meet reigning champions Leicester.
A hang-on-and-hope culture ever since Worcester arrived in the big league, with the club focused more on avoiding relegation than on winning English club rugby’s big prizes, has resulted in Ryan dampening down expectations since he was appointed in May.
This is Worcester’s tenth Premiership season, but they have been stuck in the basement for the duration. Although they bounced straight back up after being relegated in 2011, the Warriors best finish was eighth (2006), and last season they were back in more familiar territory, finishing 11th.
The other reason for Ryan’s circumspection is that the team that runs out in Worcester colours this season will not be one of his making.
Ryan had no influence on the majority of the 14 new signings at Sixways, most of whom were recruited before the end of last season. Instead, the fragmented process was conducted by Hill, with considerable input by Worcester’s rugby committee, led by chairman Bill Bolsover, and operations director Corin Palmer.
The lack of joined-up thinking in recruitment has been compounded by the running down of Worcester’s once prolific Academy production line in recent years. The upshot is that the local blood in the 35 man squad has thinned-out to the extent that only five – flanker Jake Abbott, scrum-half Jonny Arr, centre Alex Grove, wing Chris Pennell and lock James Percival – are homegrown.
Meanwhile former Worcester academy boys like Tom Wood, Dylan Hartley (both Northampton), Luke Narraway (Gloucester, now Perpignan) and most recently openside Matt Kvesic (Gloucester) have gone on to represent England, while Graham
Kitchener and Miles Benjamin, both now at Leicester, are on the Saxons radar. What makes it worse for Worcester, at least financially, is that with almost half the current squad born overseas, or not eligible for England, it will be hard to maximise on the EQP payments (English Qualified Player) which are an important tranche of club funding.
Worcester’s multi-national profile includes three Argentine internationals, hooker Agustin Creevy, fly-half Ignacio Mieres, and No.8 Leonardo Senatore, who Ryan expects to arrive over the next week following his nine-week ban for biting South Africa lock Eben Etzebeth.
In addition there are two Tongans (prop Ofa Fainga’anuku and English-qualified back row Semisi Taulava), two Samoans (scrum-half Jeremy Su’a and winger David Lemi), three Fijians (centre Ravai Fatiaki, fullback/centre Josh Matavesi, and English-qualified winger Josh Drauniniu), New Zealand back row Cam Goodhue, South African lock Mike Williams (English-qualified), Australian utility back Paul Warwick, and French prop Jeremy Becasseau.
The foreign contingent also includes new captain and rare Ryan signing Jonathan Thomas – a 67-cap Wales back five forward of whom he says, “We were incredibly lucky to get him so late in the summer” – alongside the Scotland duo of prop Euan Murray and Grove. Blend that lot with an array of English Premiership pros, and the size of the patchwork quilt that Ryan has to stitch together into a coherent whole becomes apparent.
Yet, it’s not hard to see why Worcester have given him the needle and thread. Ryan’s stock as a coach has been high throughout a career which saw the former Wasps and England No.8 move from Bristol to Gloucester in 2002, as assistant to Nigel Melville.
After taking over from Melville in 2005 Ryan put Gloucester on the title trail, and, despite the disappointment of being constant challengers but never Premiership winners, he left Kingsholm in credit before joining Sky’s rugby team as an analyst.
Ryan was a clear-cut winner as a rugby specialist who lifted the tactical lid to give viewers a greater appreciation and understanding of the international and club matches on their screens. However, the coaching itch was still there, and he made an impressive comeback as forwards coach for Scotland in last season’s Six Nations, helping them to third in the table, their best finish for seven years.
Ryan says it was simply too much of a challenge to resist. “I didn’t go to the Scotland job to learn, it was more about a single one-off experience in a Six Nations environment, with huge pressure and momentum around winning and losing. I got on well with Scott Johnson, and with the players. You are working at a higher level because they are all internationals, and you are only with them for a short time.
“It doesn’t really carry over into the Premiership because they are different environments, one short-term day-to-day and the other across a year, week in week out. If you lose two games in the Six Nations your tournament is over, whereas win two and you’re right there. It is a unique tournament, and I had a wonderful time – one of my best experiences in coaching.”
What another whiff of the cordite did was remind former soldier Ryan just how much he loved coaching and competing, and it is why he allowed Cecil Duckworth, Worcester’s owner and chief benefactor, to persuade him “to give it one more go”.
Ryan, 47, who had a reputation as a plain-speaking, authoritarian coach at Gloucester – earning him the nickname, ‘the Prince of Darkness’ – says that it is inevitable that he has changed during his long Premiership sabbatical.
“Life experience and different environments do change you. For example, being able to view rugby without an involvement in the outcome of the match, as I was able to working for Sky, means that you will see things differently.”
The career change into television punditry was, Ryan says, the right move at the right time, and one that meant he came very close to closing the door on coaching for good.
“I loved it. Leaving it was an incredibly difficult decision to make. I thought I might never come back to rugby coaching because being able to analyse big internationals, or Heineken Cup and domestic matches, without the emotional tension of being a coach was just fantastic.”
He adds, “You like to think that the detachment it teaches will stop you as a coach getting so emotionally involved that it narrows your vision. It’s very different watching a game when it doesn’t matter to you who wins and loses. The big question now I’m back in coaching is, now it does matter, whether I can hold on to that perspective.”
As for the Premiership, Ryan says he will wait awhile before coming to any firm conclusions. “I’m not sure just yet, but perhaps it’s not as clear-cut as it used to be. There used to be a top four, a middle four and a bottom four, but now it seems to be more top half and bottom half.”
However, he identifies one profound change: “The EQP scheme has had a huge impact on funding, and presents a new challenge. The question is how the Premiership sides fare against everyone else – especially with the Top 14 in France moving at such a pace in terms of size of squads.”
Ask Ryan whether Worcester have a squad capable of mixing it in the top six alongside the likes of Leicester and Harlequins and the response is blunt.
“No. It doesn’t need to be peddled around, because everyone knows we haven’t. This club has to face the challenges of not enough depth in the squad, and not enough players coming through the Academy. It’s hard to address when you’re battling in the Premiership, because you can easily be dragged away from what is important strategically.”
He is equally no-frills about the remedy. “We don’t have a strong Academy at the moment – it’s been switched off – but it will be switched back on. We have to create an environment that means a Matt Kvesic doesn’t ever go to another club. Academies are long-term investments, and with EQP and EPS payments you must have them.”
Ryan’s reality check extends to the trip to the Tigers…and beyond. “I don’t know how quickly we can gel, but we have come together well even though we are not the strongest squad. I’m confident they are a good group who will fight hard for Worcester. We could surprise a few, but also if we lose two or three players we could be exposed.”
One area which is entirely Ryan’s handiwork is his coaching team of his old Gloucester forwards coach, Carl Hogg, Kiwi backs coach Shane Howarth, and young Scottish defence coach Simon Cross.
“I brought Carl to Gloucester, and he has matured as a coach whose attention to detail is second to none. Shane is more of a nurturing coach and offers a contrast in personality to myself and Carl – that’s important in a management group – while Simon is an outstanding prospect.”
However, Ryan says that it is no good simply to focus on set-piece and defence to bail you out. “You have to work hard across all aspects to compete effectively, and I’m confident we have a pretty good coaching team.”
As Warriors director of rugby he sees himself as an integral part of the coaching unit. “There’s an awful lot of things in this job that drag me away from it, but I like to be on the field in a track-suit working with the players and other coaches.”
That hands-on involvement can only be beneficial if Ryan is as succinct and clear with the Warriors as he was as a television analyst – however, he is also looking at the bigger picture.
“It’s about a sea-change in terms of priorities and the structures you put in place. The fact that Worcester’s best league finish has been eighth tells you that what has been done has not been working. You must have the right structures to be a top six side, and that is about looking at things long-term.”
Ryan has been bold enough to stretch his own horizons by branching out, and now he hopes to do the same for Worcester.
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