Time for Change at Gloucester Rugby

What a time to be a Gloucester Rugby fan! After yet another heart-breaking home defeat in the dying minutes, this time against Harlequins, the club have announced that Head Coach Laurie Fisher has left his role with immediate effect. After his post-match tweet saying is was ‘time to make room for someone else’, it seemed just a matter of time until we got this announcement. But it’s fair to say that the writing has been on the wall for a while, with many fans saying for a while now that both Fisher and Director of Rugby David Humphreys should walk away. As a Gloucester fan, I hate to see us going the way of football and getting rid of the coaching staff during the season, but in this case is change necessary?

 

When Humphreys and Fisher joined Gloucester Rugby at the end of the 2013/14 season, they were replacing Nigel Davies after what was considered a poor season: 9th in the Premiership with 44 points, out at the pool stages of the Anglo-Welsh Cup after a 2nd place finish and out in the quarter finals of the old Challenge Cup. Since they took over, Gloucester’s results in the same competitions have not really changed much:

  • 2014/15 – 9th in the Premiership (48 points), 2nd in their Anglo-Welsh Cup pool, won the Challenge Cup but lost in the playoffs for Champions Cup qualification
  • 2015/16 – 8th in the Premiership (49 points), no Anglo Welsh Cup, lost in the quarter finals of the Challenge Cup
  • 2016/17 so far – 9th in the Premiership (35 points),  2nd in their Anglo-Welsh Cup pool, awaiting a home quarter-final against Cardiff in the Challenge Cup

Other than their Challenge Cup victory in 2015, there is no real improvement in the team’s final standings compared to those of Nigel Davies’ last season in charge. If he was let go due to poor results, should the current staff not follow suit?

Gloucester Rugby is a club with a great history, and should be regularly featuring in the Champions Cup. As it stands, there are a number of players who I would not blame if they chose to leave for a team playing regularly in the top tournament so as to improve their international chances, such as Ross Moriarty, Jonny May and Matt Scott. Other players like New Zealanders Willi Heinz, Jeremy Thrush and Tom Marshall could easily decide to leave in order to show their considerable talent at a higher level.

So looking at the figures above, it is fair to say that action is advisable, if not necessary. But does the fault lie with the coaching staff?

 

It is fair to say that the coaches have not been wholly at fault. A number of influential players have spent significant periods out injured this season, including the aforementioned Thrush, May and Marshall, but also Henry Trinder and Sione Kalamafoni, who have only recently come back from long-term injuries and now club captain Greig Laidlaw. Further to this, there have been a number of top players who have not performed to the expected standards this year. While he has still been Captain Fantastic for Scotland, Laidlaw’s form for Gloucester has been less impressive this season, to the point that I believe Heinz deserved the number 9 jersey on form. Richard Hibbard has looked good on the whole but is far too prone to stupid brain fades like his costly yellow card at the weekend, which undo all the good work he has done to that point. The 2015/16 season put Matt Kvesic on the England radar and many people felt that he was unlucky not to be getting picked by Eddie Jones for England, having finished top of the Premiership for turnovers. However this season he has struggled to start on a regular basis, with Jacob Rowan having moved ahead of him in the pecking order at openside flanker.

Gloucester have also been unfortunate with a couple of important refereeing decisions at the end of games this season. Dave Lewis bought his team a penalty at the end of their 27-27 draw at Sandy Park by passing the ball into the Gloucester tackler who was attempting to get himself off the ground and back onside. While the Gloucester player was definitely offside, there was no attempt to pass the ball to a fellow Chief, the sole intention was to win a penalty – one of my biggest hates about rugby at the moment. The penalty was kicked to the corner and Exeter scored off the resulting line out with a rolling maul. The Cherry and Whites were also in the ascendency at the end of Big Game 9. Having come back from 28-10 down to 28-24, they found themselves just short of the Harlequins try line in the dying minutes. The chances of victory were ended by a stray boot from a player on the floor kicking the ball out of Heinz’s hands (itself an illegal offence) and then and interception from Danny Care, who appeared to be at least a couple of yards offside, but both these offences went unpunished by JP Doyle. While I am not trying to say that Gloucester are the only team to have been on the wrong end of the referee’s interpretation this season, Gloucester’s season could look so different had these calls gone their way.

That said, too often Gloucester have been in a position late in the game where they are unable to see off the opposition and hold onto their lead. As well as the matches against Exeter and Harlequins that I have mentioned already, they also shipped 2 tries in the last 5 minutes to gift Leicester a 31-38 victory in the opening round of the season, having led 31-7 soon after half time. They also conceded a penalty try in the 73rd minute to lose 12-13 at home to Northampton in Round 12 of the Premiership. Further to this, they conceded a try at home late in their loss to Bath, ending their chances of getting anything from that game. Their wins at home against Saracens and Wasps show that this a talented team capable of competing against the best, they just seem incapable of getting themselves up to play a full 80 minutes against the teams around them. Whether this is a psychological barrier or down to a lack of fitness, this is something that the coaches should have dealt with now, especially as it was not something new to this season. They have also struggled in recent years to drive line outs on the opposition 5m line over for the try, while often struggling to stop the same move being used against them, again an issue that has shown little improvement as time has gone on. Sometimes you have to wonder what the coaches are actually trying to improve!

Their personnel decisions this season have also been baffling at times. Tom Marshall is a fantastic talent but has had a string of injuries since signing for us, so it seems very odd to have him as the only specialist fullback in the squad. James Hook’s chances in the number 10 jersey have been oddly limited this year – granted Billy Burns has impressed, but Hook is still a quality operator – and most of his appearances have been at 15. He also appears to be well down the list of the coaches’ preferred goal kickers, with Billy Twelvetrees often kicking after Burns has been replaced recently. The signing of Salesi Ma’afu was in my mind an odd decision too. He has not really brought much to the Gloucester performances, and is arguably taking up a place that one of our many other front rowers could be covering, especially as a number of them can play on either side of the scrum.

 

While I don’t feel that Gloucester’s problems lie solely with the coaching staff, I feel that the lack of improvement over the last 2 and a half seasons means that change is needed at the top. With the potential investment from Mohed Altrad, and with a number of high quality players like Owen Williams, Carl Fearns and Val Rapava-Ruskin moving to Kingsholm this summer, I feel that – barring a monumental improvement now Fisher is gone – David Humphreys should leave at the end of the season. With silverware still a possibility courtesy of the Challenge Cup it would be crazy to remove both men at the top at this stage in the season, but the need to improve next season means that action must be taken this summer. Whatever happens, as a Gloucester fan I will be keeping a keen eye on events and hope that things go well with Jonny Bell as Head Coach until the end of the season.

 

While it didn’t work out, I also want to take a moment to thank Laurie Fisher for his time and effort the last few years.

Fingers crossed the future is bright for the Cherry and Whites

 

What are your thoughts on the future of the Gloucester coaching staff? Want to give your opinion on anything I’ve mentioned? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

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