When judgement is finally passed on Dean Ryan at some point between the end of next month and the middle of May after a public trial lasting all season – everyone said, right from the start of the campaign, that this had to be Gloucester's year or else – the events of last Sunday may count heavily against him.
Defeat at Worcester, unexpected and inexplicable, has left his side at serious risk of missing out on the Premiership play-offs. "We'll now have to scrap until the very end, and even then there will be no guarantees," he admitted this week.
Strangely, Ryan was in a mood bordering on the sanguine. If his reputation is to be believed – and when a rugby specimen as physically and competitively overwhelming as Lawrence Dallaglio admits to being intimidated by him, why wouldn't you believe it? – he should have been in a dark rage, smashing his fists through stone walls and roasting babies on an open spit. He is not called the "Big Bad Wolf" for nothing.
But there was no hint of anger, no suggestion of a Vesuvian eruption, as he chewed the fat following a training session at the club's occasional base in Cheltenham. Partly, this was due to the immediacy of this afternoon's EDF Energy Cup semi-final with Ospreys, the Welsh glitterati, which presents both Ryan and Gloucester with an opportunity to leave a mark on the season irrespective of what happens over the last three rounds of Premiership fixtures. Mostly, though, it was because after eight months of firefighting, he saw no value in a late fanning of the flames.
"You have to be very careful how and when you shoot your arrows," he said, choosing a metaphor of his own. "We've reached a delicate stage now. A sense of humour failure here could cause a lot of damage, and this is not the time to run the risk of losing the group. I can't hide away from the disappointment of the Worcester game, which we dominated for 65 or 70 minutes, and neither should the players. But we have a semi-final ahead of us and we should be channelling the energy of our disappointment into that.
"This is the moment to be excited about what's in front of us, not intimidated. This is a tough game against quality opposition, but I don't see Ospreys as intimidating. People can't drift through a season hoping to get themselves some silverware through the back door. There's nothing easy about reaching finals and winning trophies: when you reach this point in a major competition, you can assume you'll bump into someone pretty useful. If professional players don't relish the hard parts of the job, don't really want to do it, they shouldn't be here." Which naturally raised the question of who might still be there come the start of next season. Did Ryan see a future for himself at Kingsholm should Gloucester end up empty-handed? After all, he was linked with a move to Wasps, his old club, some weeks ago. "I'll say now what I said then," he replied. "I'm on a long-term contract here. Of course, if someone above me decides I'm not staying... well, there's not much I can do about that, is there?" There is, actually. He could give them one of his stares. That should sort it.
How about the outside-halves, then? There are three big-name 10s at Kingsholm at present – the All Black conjurer Carlos Spencer (right), the youngster Ryan Lamb and the former Bath midfielder Olly Barkley, who would far rather play at inside centre but sometimes has to do as he's told – plus another full international, the Welshman Nicky Robinson, on the way. Will Spencer, Lamb and Barkley all be on the roster next term? "I'd be surprised if they were," Ryan responded, with unusual candour. "I have some decisions to make. I'm not in the business of collecting people."
The issues at No 10 have been at the heart of Ryan's difficulties this season, although other areas of the side, most notably the injury-riddled back row, have caused him significant grief. Having recruited Barkley from Bath specifically to give the talented but errant Lamb a shoulder to lean on while he developed his game, Ryan quickly decided that things were not working out the way he had planned. Hence the decision to sign the 33-year-old Spencer, who had fallen out of favour at Northampton.
This surprise move reinforced two popularly-held views of Gloucester: firstly, that a club already blessed with the most powerful squad in the Premiership would do pretty much anything to buy themselves a title; and secondly, that their head coach-cum-director of rugby had lost his sense of direction.
"To begin with, we generate big names at this club, not simply accumulate them. We produced the Olly Morgans, the James Simpson-Daniels, the Anthony Allens. Were Alasdair Dickinson and Alasdair Strokosch big names before they came here? I don't think so. Yes, we've signed some household names in recent years, but some of those household names don't get in the side. We have people fresh out of our academy playing first-team rugby right now. That's not buying a title.
"As for Carlos, I was very clear indeed about the reasons I wanted him. Back in September, I hoped we'd learned the lessons of last season [when Gloucester lost a couple of big knock-out games at Kingsholm and ended up with plenty of nothing for their efforts] and were in a position to take some strides forward. In our first game, at home to Leicester, we turned in a performance that proved to me that nothing had been learned. Nothing whatsoever. When we were beaten comfortably at Sale three weeks later, the indicators were flashing and I had to think on my feet.
"If I'm honest, I have to admit that the combination of Ryan and Olly didn't work in the way I'd imagined. It left both of them struggling for form, and the team struggling for clarity. So I was left facing the age-old question: how long do I keep travelling down the same road if I'm heading for a dead end? I decided on a different route because none of the existing options were working. Along with one or two other high-profile personnel changes, bringing in Carlos was very deliberate. I believe it could work for us. If we can find our way into the play-offs, I think we'll be better equipped to deal with them."
Today, Spencer is cup-tied and unavailable, so Ryan has had to slip into make-do-and-mend mode. But he is delighted with the New Zealander's contribution to date. "People have this perception of Carlos as a bubbly, energetic maverick. In reality, he's a hard-working, quiet, humble bloke who wants more than anything to get on with his job. He's helped enormously, just by being what he is. Young players look at him, a big-name All Black who has played in World Cups and Tri-Nations tournaments, and say to themselves: 'Oh right. That's how it's done'."
Ryan does two jobs at Gloucester, and there are those in the senior playing squad who wonder whether he spreads himself too thinly. There are certainly stresses and tensions between the roles, as Ryan admits. "As a coach, you hope people learn lessons and move onwards and upwards," he said. "As a director of rugby, you have to recognise when people aren't learning those lessons and take the appropriate action, because if you don't, you find yourself marching the army straight off the edge of a cliff.
"There's a balance to be struck. A pure coach would always stick with the same players because he's there to help them improve; a pure manager, on the other hand, would spend all his time hiring and firing. To make it work, you have to find the middle course. There's still a lot of the coach in me and I hope there always will be. But I've been here eight years now, in one capacity or another, and I understand that I'm paid to make the hard calls. If I don't make them, and get them right, it's my own neck on the line."
At the last count, there were 25 capped players in the Gloucester squad. Only Leicester come close to matching that tally, and in terms of trophies won and finals reached, there is no comparison between the two clubs. But it was Gloucester's performance in defeat at Leicester earlier this month that persuaded Ryan that finally, he is on the right track.
"They smashed us all around the park and we played 20 minutes with 14 men, but we didn't concede a try," he said proudly. "There wasn't much sparkle about us that day, but there was a real competitive edge. I know I have the players to bring some sparkle to the team, but guts – that's a much harder thing for a coach to add. We haven't made life easy for ourselves this season, but we're not at the end of it quite yet."Reuse content