The wisecracks have been coming thick and fast for a couple of months now: Gloucester must have Sir Steve Redgrave in their scrum, because nobody else goes backwards that quickly; Kingsholm is the worst-equipped theatre in the world, because someone stole all the props; the Cherry and Whites have a Rolex back division playing behind a Ratners pack. And those are just the clean ones.
Back in the day, only the extremely brave or the exceedingly stupid took it upon themselves to poke fun at a Gloucester pack: those who imagined they could have a laugh at the expense of Mike Burton, John Fidler, John Gadd or Mike Teague invariably ended up laughing on a side of the face they didn’t know they had. How times have changed. The West Countrymen have not been a heavy-duty scrummaging outfit for some years, but their set-piece weakness this season has been flabbergasting. Butchered by Bath, eviscerated by Exeter, left for dead by Leicester… life at the sharp end can never have been so painful.
Nigel Davies, one of the more astute rugby directors in the Premiership, is not much interested in gestures of the futile variety, so he does not attempt to sugar-coat the sour truth. “We had enough opportunities to win the game against Leicester,” he said of the contest at Kingsholm eight days ago, “but there were a couple of reasons why we didn’t. We left a lot of points out on the field (brief pause) and our set-piece wasn’t up to it.” There you have the story, in a nutshell.
So what’s going on? Those raised on the rugby of a bygone age, when a trip to Gloucester was the union code’s equivalent of a journey into the heart of darkness, have long struggled to comprehend the decline in forward fortunes at Castle Grim, but they are now joined in their befuddlement by supporters of a more recent vintage. Davies has been busy on the recruitment front – the Tongan Test prop Sila Puafisi has already arrived and will be integrated the moment his work permit arrives; the accomplished All Black front-rower John Afoa will pitch up from Ulster next season, as might the Wales and Lions hooker Richard Hibbard, currently with Ospreys – but the coach will have to perform a very good trick to salvage something worthwhile from a current campaign blighted by problems at close quarters.
According to James Hudson, the 32-year-old Midlander who moved from Newcastle at the end of last term and is a senior figure in the dressing room, he and his clubmates have committed one of rugby’s deadlier sins. “I think we’ve been too honest at the scrum,” he remarked this week after a three-session training day geared towards generating some much-needed momentum against Edinburgh in tomorrow lunchtime’s Heineken Cup game at Murrayfield. “We did a lot of work on the new scrum protocols during the summer and we came into the season adhering very much to the letter of the law. I’m not sure that’s been the case across the board.
“Under the previous set-piece engagement, where everything was about the big hit, five out of 10 scrums were on the deck so quickly that the referees were making calls without knowing exactly what had happened and why. It was hard for them to understand who was responsible for the collapse – especially with some of the strongest packs scrummaging deliberately for penalties. It’s different now. The scrums are live for longer and the officials have more time to have a proper look before making up their minds.
“It’s also fair to say that we’ve been inconsistent as a scrummaging pack. There have been times this season when we’ve scrummed well and proved we can deliver quality ball for our backs. We were good against Perpignan in our first Heineken Cup match, and they’re no mugs in the tight; we did well over in Munster, which is not the easiest place to go; we finished strongly up at Harlequins just recently. But equally, there have been times when we haven’t delivered the right kind of possession. There’s no denying it.”
Did Hudson feel Gloucester’s scrummaging reputation was now a negative for them in the eyes of the referees – that officials were perceiving them as weak and were therefore more likely to penalise them? “I have to be careful what I say,” the lock responded. “I’d like to believe that every game is a blank sheet as far as the referees are concerned, but there might be a perception problem. If there is, we’ll have to work bloody hard to change it.”
Hudson’s move south was a significant one for Gloucester, who had seen Jim Hamilton take the euro-rich road to France – the Scot joined Montpellier in the summer – and lost Alex Brown to premature retirement because of injury. Davies needed a proven line-out specialist who had been around the block and could operate at a high level on a regular basis. Hudson’s experience with Bath and London Irish, as well as with the Tynesiders, made him a strong candidate, especially as he had also played Churchill Cup rugby for the second-tier England Saxons.
“I was brought in to do a job and I’m determined to get it done,” said Hudson, who has made good early progress in ensuring that the line-out pays its way. “Gloucester is a genuine rugby city; the club is part of the fabric of the community. That increases the pressure on all of us to perform. When I was at Bath, another big rugby town, I wasn’t one of the main men and was able to keep my head down. Here, it’s different. The reason I came to Gloucester was to take responsibility for things.”
Gloucester are a long way short of the sum of their parts. They have the most potent attacking back line in the Premiership: a midfield trio of Freddie Burns, Billy Twelvetrees and Henry Trinder, bookended by scrum-halves and wings of richly contrasting styles and underpinned by healthy options at full-back…this is the stuff of dreams for any coach. They are not exactly struggling in the loose forward department, either, with a Tom Savage or a Sione Kalamafoni here, a Matt Kvesic or an Akapusi Qera there, a Ben Morgan somewhere else.
But without a functioning set-piece, they find themselves anchored in the bottom four of the Premiership when they should be sailing full steam ahead into the top four, as many expected them to do at the start of business in September. Gone are the days when a scrum-less side blessed with all the other rugby virtues – the Wallabies of the mid-to-late noughties, for instance, or Wasps towards the end of the Lawrence Dallaglio era – could bluff their way through big matches stuck in reverse.
“We know what’s being said about us,” Hudson acknowledged. “We don’t go out of our way to read the criticism that comes our way, but at the same time we don’t deliberately distance ourselves from it. And it hurts. I can assure you of that. The scrum is the first thing that gets looked at when people watch us these days and it’s an uncomfortable feeling, especially when there are such dangerous runners and footballers in the back line.
“So it’s down to us to address whatever issues we have as a unit, without forgetting the positive aspects of what we’re doing. It’s not that we don’t work hard at it and it’s not down to individuals. This is a collective thing; it’s about all of us doing the right things in the right places, all the time. When I think back to our pre-season match with Toulon, we scrummed pretty well against Andrew Sheridan, Sébastien Bruno and Carl Hayman. If that doesn’t convince us we can get this right, nothing will.”