Rugby Union: Gloucester's Gaul is the healer

That infamous Kingsholm spirit is primed for a revival under Saint- Andre
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THEY STILL exist, those die-hard Kingsholm traditionalists who regard a meal out in Cheltenham as dangerously cosmopolitan and arm themselves with a passport before venturing into the Forest of Dean. You can find them on any Saturday match afternoon, gathered together at the back of the Shed with their Cherry and White shirts, their effigies of Francois Pienaar and Will Carling and their rose-tinted memories of Teaguey, Gaddy, Burto and Fids.

"Glaaasterrr," they holler in the time-honoured fashion. "Never mind the ball, lads, get on with the game."

But even they are beginning to get the modern message, to grow used to the idea of a team inhabited by New Zealanders, Australians and Samoans as well as home-reared hardnuts from Matson, Coney Hill and Longlevens. They have seen Steve Ojomoh, once a Bath man through and through, cross the West Country Rubicon to elbow Simon Devereux, a rough-and-ready handful from the local Spartans club, out of the first-choice back row. They have witnessed the emergence of Terry Fanolua, a South Sea Islander, as a popular folk hero in the grand manner of Dick Smith, Johnny Watkins and Digger Morris. Apart from Londoners, who remain far beyond the pale, Kingsholm now welcomes all-comers.

Which is why the sudden and wholly unexpected appointment of Philippe Saint-Andre as club coach does not quite signify the end of the world as we know it. Saint-Andre may have landed in the Cotswolds from Planet France and he may communicate many of his ideas via a heavily personalised form of Gallic semaphore, but his instinctive grasp of rugby's abstractions - honour, pride, togetherness, esprit de corps - allows him to speak Gloucester's language without necessarily knowing the lingo. Having won the hearts of the Kingsholm faithful over the past 23 months, the capture of their minds should, in theory at least, be a piece of gateau.

But then, Saint-Andre's immediate predecessor also oozed passion and commitment from every pore and those honest to goodness qualities failed to save Richard Hill from the bum's rush treatment. Hill was sacked a little under a fortnight ago, not just because he had failed to cement a place in the top six of the Allied Dunbar Premiership, but because a side assumed to be the closest-knit unit in English rugby had simply stopped playing, either for him or for each other. The reason? Well, that remains a mystery, not least to Hill himself.

There was a degree of resentment, inside the playing squad as well as on the terraces, at the coach's proactive role in shipping Phil Greening, another born-and-bred Spartan, out to Sale. In addition, Hill's relationship with Dave Sims, the club captain, grew uneasy to the extent that Sims was widely and authoritatively rumoured to be considering a move to Bristol. But any suggestion of a dressing-room split along geographical lines - the Gloucester boys against the imports - is wide of the mark. True, Neil McCarthy, the former Bath hooker who recently supplanted Greening as England's official number two No 2, expressed his surprise and sadness at Hill's demise, but a number of local products were also close to the coach and have privately questioned the wisdom of terminating his contract.

Sims, the 29-year-old one-club lock who embodies the Gloucester ethic more completely than any Cherry and White forward since Mike Teague, maintains a diplomatic silence on the subject of Hill's departure, but he openly accepts that the Kingsholm faithful have been short-changed throughout the course of a deeply disappointing campaign. "We've been playing as individuals and that worries me, because it has never been our way," he said this week. "Somehow, somewhere, we've lost some of the spirit that always drew us close together and made us strong.

"It's difficult to put a finger on the reasons why, but we haven't been a real team for quite a while; not in the Gloucester sense, anyway. Whenever we found ourselves in trouble in the past, perhaps having to win a game to stay clear of relegation or up against it in a cup match against quality opposition, there was a togetherness that always took us through. There was never any fear, any panic. We just knew that on a big Saturday afternoon at Kingsholm, we could mix it with the very best and get a result. Right now, that confidence isn't there. We need to find it again."

The spiritual fall has indeed been precipitate. Six months ago Gloucester were one of the coming sides; their abject away form would prevent them staking a meaningful claim for the title, of course, but they looked practically unbeatable on their own rectangle of blood-stained mud. After all, Sims and six of his colleagues - four tight forwards plus Ojomoh and Scott Benton, the scrum-half - had gone toe to toe and claw to claw with a variety of crack New Zealand teams during the summer and emerged not only with a full complement of limbs, but with reputations enhanced. It should have been the making of them. So what happened?

"Good question," replies Sims, whose own Test performances against the All Blacks in Auckland and the Springboks in Cape Town were among the few stomachable English contributions on that grisly expedition. "I think perhaps a few of us felt a bit low, a little disappointed, at not making the England squad for the autumn internationals. Between us, we did a job for our country in pretty difficult circumstances and we felt we deserved some communication from the selectors, if nothing else. But that's not an excuse for some of our recent performances at club level. We all learned a tremendous amount during the tour, but we haven't made it count. We have to look at ourselves and ask the reasons why."

If the required solutions were beyond Hill's grasp, can Saint-Andre hope to come up with the right answers? "Why shouldn't he?" asks Sims. "Philippe has earned the respect he now enjoys here and he's an inspirational figure, both on the field and in the dressing-room. Spirit and commitment have always been important ingredients in French rugby and Philippe understands how essential it is to get us playing as a team, as a 15, once more. To my mind he has a tremendous amount to offer, and I've no doubt that this squad will give him everything he asks."

If ever there was a time to rediscover the musketeerish benefits of the "all for one and one for all" philosophy of rugby, cup quarter-final day is as good a day as any. This afternoon Saint-Andre's Gloucester play their first game in anger against the hated Harlequins, whose Premiership victory at Kingsholm a fortnight ago ran down the curtain on Hill's bold attempt to bring the old Cherry and White dinosaur into the 20th century before the dawning of the 21st.

"The whole city will turn out for this one," say Sims, who starts the match on the bench under a rotation system designed to keep he and his fellow locks, Rob Fidler and Mark Cornwell, in gainful employment. "Quins have made a habit of coming down here and turning us over and it's getting on our nerves a bit. We have a lot to prove, both to ourselves and our supporters.

"Philippe can help us do that, but only if we help him. A few signs of the old togetherness would be a start."