Rugby Union: Hill faces mission improbable

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The Independent Online
THE MISSION looks impossible but they have accepted it. Gloucester have to start winning away with regularity - otherwise they will self destruct before the end of the season.

Abysmal does not begin to cover their record at the moment. Gloucester are suffering from a chronic bout of homesickness that has seen them win just three Allied Dunbar Premiership matches away from fortress Kingsholm since the start of last season - a total of 16 fixtures.

What is worse is they have to travel to Wasps tomorrow where their record in the league makes for even grimmer reading. Eight visits (shared between Sudbury and Loftus Road) and not a single victory.

A ninth defeat will set them alongside Harlequins for possession of the worst away record in the history of the league. No wonder Richard Hill, their diminutive director of rugby, has had an anxious Christmas.

"Our away form is something we are addressing very seriously," said Hill, with a note of desperation in his voice. "We have to find a way around it and all our efforts are being poured into finding a solution. But in the end it is just an attitude of mind. If all 15 players have total self- confidence on the pitch it will be fine. Gloucester are never going to be anything more than a reasonable mid-table side if we don't win away from Kingsholm."

It is bizarre that Gloucester currently have a tendency to outplay their opponents for the first 40 minutes, then obligingly let the opposition back into the game and invariably cede all advantages and, ultimately, victory.

They have had their problems. Long-term injury to their talented England prop Phil Vickery threatens his career and there are a clutch of other indispositions. Also, as Hill admitted, the 26 players are still trying to come to terms with the squad system. "It has been difficult for a player who, fitness permitting, has been first choice for two or three seasons suddenly to find himself on the bench," explained Hill. "But because I have quality players in just about every position I have the luxury of being able to pick an in-form player."

Mark Mapletoft is an example of that. He was ousted at fly-half by Simon Mannix back in November but, after coming off the bench to score 13 points last week, he starts against Wasps. "Mark has found it hard," said Hill, "but I think he is a better player for it. The squad has to learn to replace the verb `dropped' with `rested'."

For all that, Hill admitted: "I can't say I am optimistic about the outcome of the Wasps match. But if they put in the sort of gritty performance that they managed against Leicester it will be a start. We have every reason to want to beat Wasps. They beat us at Kingsholm earlier this season in the fourth minute of injury time and the players should be desperate to beat them for that reason as well as ending this away run." It is a big responsibility for lock Rob Fidler, who captains the side for the first time in a Premiership match.

Of the other Premiership games tomorrow Harlequins must fancy their chances against Sale, particularly since captain Zinzan Brooke is expected to have recovered from flu. His All Black colleague John Schuster is another reason why Quins are favourites. Schuster has become the first player to pass 200 points for the season with a remarkable 69 successful kicks out of 80. Sale could well look to David Rees, the England wing, to beef up their defence, which conceded five tries at Newcastle last week.

Saracens entertain struggling London Scottish at Watford - a match that kicks off at 3.15pm - and will be giving the Argentine prop Roberto Grau and South Africa-born, England qualified, centre Jeremy Thomson fitness tests. Both are rated doubtful.

Today leaders Leicester line up against Bedford with an unchanged side from that which came away from Kingsholm with a satisfying win last week. That means no Joel Stransky, Will Greenwood or Nnamdi Ezulike.

Bedford drop full-back Sam Howard and bring in wing Ben Whetstone in his place, while centre Joe Ewens makes way for Dan Harris.

In the other Boxing Day match Richmond are again without captain Ben Clarke, who has a fractured cheekbone, when they take on London Irish at Reading, a fact which does not help their chances against a formidable Exiles team. Irish are again without back row dynamo Isaac Fea'unati (knee) but they are the form side and, having gone close at Sunbury, there is every chance, now that they have been bolstered by the arrival of the likes of halfbacks Steve Bachop and Kevin Putt, that they will emerge victors.

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