Ryan plays Big Bad Wolf in Gloucester nightmare

A furious coach at Kingsholm is determined that his side rediscover their hunger in today's Premiership derby against Bath. Chris Hewett listens to a man on a mission
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The Independent Online

A little history. Twenty-one years ago, three beautiful uglies from Gloucester - Malcolm Preedy, Steve Mills and Phil Blakeway - broke new ground, not to mention a couple of teeth, by manning the England front row against the Springboks in Port Elizabeth, the first time the unit at the epicentre of the red rose scrum had been drawn from a single club. They lost the match heavily, but did all right for themselves in the fight. A decade later, when the current Gloucester coach, Dean Ryan, confronted another belligerent band of South Africans in the self-same city, he did not emerge as an obvious candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Get the picture? They cherish their hard-nuts down Kingsholm way, where the raw mix of passion, pugilism and political incorrectness is nothing if not unique. ("Come on Vicks," came a cry from the Shed a few weeks back as the England prop Phil Vickery invoked what might be described as the front-row disputes procedure during a local slugfest with Worcester. "My missus hits me harder than that.")

Yet in two recent matches, against an outstanding Stade Français team in the Heineken Cup and a barely standing Harlequins team in the Premiership, the Cherry and Whites betrayed their own tradition by giving up the ghost. Now they have arrived at the crucial point in their season, the question has to be asked: is this the first Gloucester side since the dawning of time not to care? Or at least, not to care enough?

Ryan never played for Gloucester, but he might as well have done, for he is Kingsholm man incarnate. "I used to love coming here," he said this week, recalling his visits with Wasps and Newcastle. "There were certain places in England that gave me no enjoyment at all. They still don't, even now. But Gloucester was always special. It could be bloody uncomfortable for a visiting player, but it was real somehow. You knew what the club stood for and respected its values. I always considered it a wonderful place, tough as it was."

That attachment to people and place has grown in the three years since Ryan resigned from his director of rugby's job at Bristol to join another former Wasp, Nigel Melville, a few miles up the M5. Indeed, it has grown to the extent that a really bad performance both hurts and embarrasses him.

A fortnight on from the humiliation at Quins, when 14 pastel-shaded Londoners stuck the best part of 40 points on a Gloucester side lacking all authority and direction, he has been dispensing home truths by the dozen before today's important Premiership derby with Bath. "How's training? It's been a bit unfriendly amongst the players," he admitted. "Come to think of it, I haven't been too friendly myself."

Gloucester are below the fold in the league, seventh to be precise, for the first time in ages, and face an awkward run of games against the likes of Northampton, London Irish and Leeds, all of whom will be driven by the fear of relegation. Their chances of a place in Europe next season may well depend on success in the Powergen Cup, but Bath - yes, them again - stand in their way, as semi-final opponents at Kingsholm on 6 March.

"Massive game, that one," Ryan said. "We need to be absolutely right by then." But Gloucester have not been right since well before Christmas. In fact, they have been completely wrong. As one of the deeper thinkers among the English coaching fraternity, Ryan has clear ideas as to how and why. "The dynamics of a rugby team are very complex, very delicate, and we haven't had the correct balance recently," he explained. "Part of the problem is down to injuries. It is not simply a case of being denied the services of highly influential players, like Olivier Azam and James Simpson-Daniel and Duncan McRae. It also means we can't drop people, to put it bluntly.

"We've had a settled 22 for a while now, and when there is no scope to alter the mix, it saps hunger and breeds complacency. That manifested itself in the Quins performance, which was unacceptable to me and should have been unacceptable to everyone involved here. I lost games as a player and I've lost them as a coach, but very few defeats were the result of a lack of desire.

"At Quins, desire was an issue. We looked an unhappy side that day. I don't actually think we're any less happy than anyone else, but had I been a rival coach watching us from the stand, I'd have said to myself: 'Now's the time to play this lot.'

"I'm not accusing anyone of consciously not trying; certainly, I don't want to believe a player of mine would be capable of such a thing. But there is a hell of a difference between merely trying and playing with real hunger. There's a 10 per cent gap there, and it means everything.

"We've made changes for today's match with that in mind. We're also addressing the authority levels, because it's very easy in this game to slide into somewhere you don't want to be. The value of a player like Martin Johnson is that teams under him tend not to find themselves sliding anywhere, but we don't have a Martin Johnson. We're in a state of flux in this area, and have been for some time."

His singling out of Johnson as an example of towering rugby leadership was predictable enough - "I mention him because he was, and probably still is, the best at what he does" - but the coach himself was a superb captain, as celebrated Wasps like Lawrence Dallaglio and the whole of Newcastle's title-winning side of 1998 would confirm without a second's thought. "I never considered myself the best player, but I was a fierce competitor and I demanded a lot from those around me," Ryan said. Gloucester could do with him on the field, as well as off it.

"Who do we get in behind at this stage in our development?" he continued. "Jake Boer has done well for us as captain, but he can let the leadership thing get on top of his game. Phil Vickery needs to be playing well before he feels confident about telling others what to do. You didn't have that problem with Johnson or Dallaglio, who were capable of leading well even when they were playing badly. I'll be interested to see how Adam Balding" - the loose forward signed from Leicester last summer - "develops as a regular member of the first team. Can he do the job? Maybe."

There are glaring parallels between Gloucester and England, for whom Ryan last played under the then unknighted Clive Woodward in 1998. Both have shed know-how and influence as a snake sheds its skin - if the Kingsholmites have succeeded in replacing Trevor Woodman, Junior Paramore and Ludovic Mercier, precious few have noticed - and injuries are playing them up something cruel. Ryan accepts that the length and intensity of the domestic season is a problem of ever-increasing magnitude.

He does not, however, buy the argument that the national team's difficulties are down to the unreasonable demands of the club game - a charge made by Fran Cotton, that arch-antagonist of the Premiership fraternity, after England's defeat by France last weekend. "Yes, there are issues, but the same issues were there in 2003, when we won the World Cup," Ryan said. "Whatever problems England have, they're not down to a lack of preparation time. People use that as a smokescreen, because they're unwilling to address the wider concerns faced by the sport as a whole.

"To come out with all this stuff now is not on. The Premiership gave England's players the match hardness they needed to win the World Cup; now, we're accused of taking too much of the pie. These people can't have it both ways. We're five years into the problem of player burn-out, not 12 months into it. Look at it from the clubs' point of view. Because of the number of days the élite squad members spend away, our preparation for important games can be very sporadic. We're in a position where we have to plan for our most influential players being less influential than they should be. We all face difficulties of one kind or another, but you can't simply lay them at the door of the Premiership clubs. A year ago, we were bloody wonderful. People forget too easily."

Vintage Ryan: straight to the point. They will be listening to him in the dressing-room this afternoon, that's for sure, and if the Big Bad Wolf of English rugby has his way, Gloucester will put the craven performances of the recent past behind them without further ado. "I don't think you'll see a shortage of desire against Bath," he said. A threat, or a promise? In Ryan's world, they amount to the same thing.

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