The ghosts of Gloucester packs past – Gordon Sargent and Phil Blakeway, John Fidler, John Gadd, Mike Teague – could remember their defeats on home soil at Kingsholm in all their grisly detail, principally because there were so few of them. The thing they really struggled to recall was engaging reverse gear at the scrum and being treated to a close-up view of their own rear ends before, calamity of calamities, losing the ball against the head. Why should they? It never happened. Ever.
Times have changed, more radically than anyone then watching the Cherry and Whites could have imagined. Last season, the Gloucester pack was an embarrassment – especially at the set piece, the very theatre of conflict dominated by generations of their forerunners.
There were scrummaging humiliations in virtually every game, many of which were lost in spirit as well as on the scoreboard. But that was not the worst of it, as David Humphreys, the man charged with overseeing perhaps the biggest restoration project in English club rugby, mentioned a couple of days ago.
“It was James Simpson-Daniel who said that, at the low point, it felt as though the players had lost Kingsholm itself,” the Ulsterman reflected as the official launch of the 2014-15 Aviva Premiership unfolded around him. “I could relate to that. When I was playing back home in Belfast, there was a time when it seemed we’d lost Ravenhill.
“The crowd there, the whole rugby culture, has a lot in common with Gloucester; rugby is such an important part of life in both cities. It’s a big thing for a team, finding themselves in that position. So yes, we know we have to refind Kingsholm. And the only way of doing that is through performance.”
That someone like Simpson-Daniel – a folk-hero wing unconditionally revered by the locals – should have talked in such terms illustrates the gravity of the club’s position at the back end of last season.
Repercussions were inevitable. Nigel Davies lost his job as rugby director, even though he had made a number of important signings specifically designed to address the team’s problems at the sharp end, and the manner of his passing was striking. Far from suffering the kind of slow death experienced by such illustrious predecessors as Philippe Saint-André and Dean Ryan, he was gone in the blinking of an eye.
As is usual in team sport these days, the movers and shakers on the board announced a “worldwide search” for the right replacement – a “no expense spared, no stone left unturned” hunt for a managerial alchemist.
Lots of names were mentioned, from Wayne Smith in New Zealand and Nick Mallett in South Africa to Lyn Jones in Wales and some bloke called Woodward down in rural Berkshire. The name no one mentioned was Humphreys, but as the former Ireland half-back had been at the heart of Ulster’s resurgence as a serious power in European rugby, he had credentials coming out of his ears. As with most puzzles, the solution was obvious once it was there in black and white.
Humphreys is an unusually clever customer. A qualified lawyer who won a Blue at Oxford, he was very much the thinking man’s outside-half during a professional rugby career that yielded him 72 Ireland caps, a Heineken Cup title and a Celtic League crown. And he is heading up what seems to be a devilishly cunning coaching team featuring the Australian forwards specialist Laurie Fisher, whose garlanded Super Rugby career with the Canberra-based Brumbies speaks for itself, and Nick Walshe, an occasional England scrum-half who has arrived at Kingsholm via the international seven-a-side circuit and should have plenty of fun discussing space, angles and timing with Simpson-Daniel and the rest of a jaw-droppingly good Gloucester back division.
Add to this the presence of the Australia defence strategist John Muggleton, under whom the Wallabies conceded the grand total of one try in winning the 1999 World Cup, and… well, you get the drift.
There are also no fewer than 26 new players, including academy signings, and while Davies was responsible for much of the recruitment – the Welshman may reasonably feel just a little exasperated if the All Black prop John Afoa, the Wales and Lions hooker Richard Hibbard and the increasingly impressive Argentinian lock Mariano Galarza succeed in transforming the forward unit back into something Blakeway and Teague might recognise – this latest coaching team seems better equipped to maximise potential.
Assuming Fisher, aided and abetted by the World Cup-winning England prop Trevor Woodman, generates sufficient heat from the pack, the fire behind the scrum could be all-consuming.
Gloucester’s kids – the scrum-halves Dan Robson and Callum Braley, the outside-half Billy Burns, the wing Steph Reynolds – are among the most talked about youngsters in the country, but they will have to go some to keep the multi-talented Scotland half-back Greig Laidlaw and the sublimely gifted Welsh playmaker James Hook in their respective boxes.
All things considered, the work done on the transfer front over the last seven months amounts to the most complete squad renovation of the professional era. Yet there are obvious obstacles on the road ahead, numerous potholes – some of them positively crater-like – to be avoided.
“How long will the bedding-in process take? That’s the question we’ve been asking ourselves since we first got together,” Humphreys said. “Generally, you recruit people to play a certain way, but a lot of the new people in the squad, including some of the big names, were signed before this coaching team came together.
“You have to pay tribute to the recruitment carried out earlier in the year, but Laurie has been with us for only three weeks and he’s starting at the very beginning with scrums, line-outs and restarts.
“John has been here a little longer but again he’s beginning at the bottom by working on tackle technique. There will be a new defensive system, but it will take time to implement.
“For all these reasons, managing expectation will be a significant task. Extremely challenging, actually, because expectation in a rugby community like Gloucester is naturally very high. The supporters expect to win the league every year, even though the recent reality has been very different.
“I expect this first year to be an emotional roller coaster, but we have an ambitious group of players who understand what we’re trying to do. The trick will be not to get too carried away when things go well, or get too down when they don’t. We know the direction of travel, but how long it will take us to arrive is anybody’s guess.”
The journey begins on Friday night at Franklin’s Gardens, the home of the reigning champions Northampton and just about the most difficult place for a visiting team to set foot. The Midlanders are so comfortable in their own skins they have made only one serious signing since last term. Gloucester are the polar opposites.
If, this time next year, their foundations are equally sound – if the first-team squad looks pretty much as it does now – Humphreys will be well on the way to earning himself the title of master builder.