Change is in the air at Gloucester. In fact, it has been for some time. Some 14 players have joined the club over the summer, amongst them a handful of the biggest names in the game – the likes of Richard Hibbard, John Afoa and James Hook. Club luminaries like Mike Tindall and Andy Hazell have retired.
And yet the most important change has arguably come off the field. David Humphreys has joined as Director of Rugby, having just overseen one of the most successful periods in his hometown club’s history. He forms an immense coaching partnership with ex-Brumbies, shaggy haired and baggy cap-wearing Aussie Laurie Fischer, and ex-England U21s supremo Nick Walshe. If you thought it was just on the pitch where Gloucester had recruited impressively, thing again.
There are few genuine shocks in rugby these days (off the pitch, at least), but when it was announced that Humphreys would join Gloucester from Ulster, the only professional club he had ever played or coached at, there was an audible gasp of surprise on both sides of the Irish Sea.
What was it, then, that brought the Oxford-educated, ex-Ireland fly-half over to Gloucester at a time when his hometown club was starting to forge a real identity for itself amongst Europe’s elite?
“Everybody, at different stages of their life, looks to a new challenge,” he says, somewhat wistfully. “I feel very fortunate to have been involved with Ulster for so long, but when the Gloucester opportunity arose I felt it was something I wanted to do. It was something that excited me, it’s a club that has got a vast history.
“Everybody talks about the potential, and that somewhere along the line, we’ve got to start realising that potential. With the playing squad that we’ve got here, I think there’s an opportunity over the next number of years to try and bring some stability both in terms of the coaching staff and playing staff, which will then allow success on the pitch.”
The talk of potential is not misplaced – for a while Gloucester have been a club that have flattered to deceive, pockmarked with players who possess genuine star quality and yet just lacking something to take them back to where they feel they belong – the very top table.
Last year, they lacked a front five. There’s no doubt about that, and Humphreys admits as much. He’s confident, however, that the recruitment of the likes of Hibbard, Afoa, Palmer and Galarza will change that.
“There’s no doubt that when you recruit people like that, you expect to see a certain level of performance. What they’ve brought to training, both on and off the pitch, has been fantastic.
“It has provided a bit of a catalyst for the level of training to be where we want it to be. They know what international quality looks like. We believe some of the issues that were there last year will hopefully not be the same as the issues that may arise during the course of this season.”
Again, it’s not just on the pitch that the front five has been bolstered. While Humphreys and Walshe are ex-backs and will take care of Gloucester’s stellar cast of free-running speedsters, Laurie Fischer is the man in charge of turning around Gloucester’s woeful forward performance last season.
“Laurie was recruited as head coach with a special forwards expertise, so he’s come in and there’s been a strong focus on our set piece,” Humphreys says, a point that will be music to the ears of Gloucester fans who had to watch their scrum shunted back more often that was comfortable last season.
“Our big challenge is to marry what has traditionally been the big strength of Gloucester with the quality of back they’ve got and the quality of tries they scored last season. There’s very much been a focus on getting some of the basics right, and providing some detail so that the players are accountable for how they perform week in week out.”
With so many ins and outs between seasons, cohesion and the speed with which the group gels are likely to be concerns amongst fans. Humphreys admits there have been difficulties, but insists the new signings have mucked in and are already looking the part in training.
“If you put it in the scale of pre-seasons, this is probably at the lower end of what you’d like, running into a league as difficult as the Aviva.
“Despite all the changes, the players have been outstanding. In the short time we’ve had together there’s been a lot of work going on both on and off the pitch to ensure that when we arrive at Northampton we’re as well prepared as we can be, considering everything that’s happened.”
Therein lies the big problem for Humphreys. He has an obscene amount of quality at his disposal – arguably just as much as any other head coach in the league – but where the Leicesters, Northamptons, Saracens, Baths and Harlequins of this world have been tinkering and adjusting with their squads, Gloucester’s entrance and exit doors have been ever-spinning turnstiles.
A new coaching set-up, a plethora of new signings and a new captain to boot – the new director of rugby is certainly going to have his work cut out. With that in mind, Humphreys is grounded about his new side’s chances this season. The squad is easily capable of making the play-offs, but whether they are a tight-knit enough group is another matter.
“You’ve got to always look to where you’ve come from. We finished ninth last year, so it’s almost a bit disrespectful to say we’re going to go from ninth to fourth. There have been some very good teams who have recruited very well – the challenge is nobody knows how quickly they’ll be able to pull together. Nobody knows that.
“We haven’t talked about where we’re going to finish – I don’t believe that our team is ready to do that. We’re only looking at Northampton. Once we’ve got to Northampton we’ll then look at the next six games – after six games, we can say ‘We know where we sit, and we know where the other teams sit. What’s a realistic outcome for the end of the season?’.”
It’s one of the most eagerly-awaited questions of the new season.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images