The emotional rollercoaster of Kingsholm
August 28, 2014
The man charged with bringing pride back to Kingsholm - David Humphreys © Getty Images
Kingsholm is meant to be a fearsome place for the travelling team. As they walk out from underneath the south stand and are greeted by the baying Shed, they should feel the pressure of the occasion and wilt under it. Last season, Gloucester's ground lost that fear factor - it was more a jaunt to a petting zoo than a foreboding trip to 'Castle Grim'.
That is one of the first tasks facing new director of rugby David Humphreys. As he sat fielding questions at the launch of the new Aviva Premiership season on Wednesday, he was sporting the cherry and white of Gloucester rather than the similar shade of his old province Ulster.
When the last ball of the season was kicked in anger by the province, Humphreys' thoughts were turning to next season with Ulster. He was trying to work out how to get that extra couple of percent from his team and get them into the finals their supporters desire. Then came the call from Gloucester and in the blink of an eye he had swapped life in Belfast for south west England.
"It still seems very surreal to be sitting here alongside Billy [Twelvetrees] as my new captain with the Gloucester badge on," Humphreys said. "But it was an opportunity I didn't expect to come around but it's one where I am delighted to be sitting here. I am excited by the challenge and I am looking forward to working with in the Premiership."
Looking at how Gloucester fared last season, there are two issues that need to be solved. First, they must sort their front-row. Last term it seemed at times it was made of papier-mâché such was the ease at which they were being dominated. They have reacted by spending big on British & Irish Lion hooker Richard Hibbard and ex-All Black tight-head John Afoa. The basic talent is there, now comes the challenge of creating a cohesion. To that end, Humphreys has spent time working on the basics of the sport over the summer alongside new head coach Laurie Fisher.
"If you look back last year, you have to pay tribute to the recruitment," Humphreys said. "They've addressed a number of the issues that were there whether that's around the set piece or around the goal-kicking percentages. Laurie's been here three weeks and the discussion has been around starting from the very beginning and that's around set piece and the style of play.
"In the space of those weeks it has been simple and based around the scrum and lineout and our exit plays. John Muggleton's been here a little bit longer and there's been a big focus around our defensive system which will be different to last year. That takes a little bit longer to implement than an attacking structure. We've started right from the bottom, working on tackle technique and working on situations on the pitch. We've started at a low level but we will build on that throughout the system."
The Gloucester crowd would have taken heart from their early penalty try against Munster in their second pre-season friendly which was forced through the power of their pack with a front-row featuring Dan Murphy, Hibbard and Afoa. That win alongside a 10-try thrashing of Yorkshire Carnegie means the new-look coaching team are unbeaten at Kingsholm, but pre-season matches mean little. It is the Premiership where it counts.
"When I first arrived, I read an article from James Simpson-Daniel who talked about how the players felt they had lost Kingsholm. To me that was one my big concerns. I look back to when I finished playing in 2008 and Ulster had lost Ravenhill and one of the things we said was the need to rebuild those foundations.
"And we need to re-find Kingsholm and we will do that by performing. That started two weekends ago against Yorkshire and I think you saw the atmosphere against Munster where there were 13,000 fans there and that speaks volumes. It won't be a big job for us to show what it means to play for Gloucester and the performances will reflect that.
"People talk about pride but when you take to the pitch and if you are giving it everything you can, supporters who understand rugby understand you can't always control the result but you can control how you perform."
Integral to their projected improved performance will be new fly-half James Hook who Humphreys hopes will improve on their goal-kicking percentages from last season. He will start as their first-choice No.10 but Humphreys says, like his whole plan for Gloucester, it will take time for him to bed in alongside Greig Laidlaw and Twelvetrees.
So it is a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire for Humphreys; he has left one stronghold for another with that ever-present expectation of silverware from the vocal Shed. "Both clubs are rooted in the community and have passionate supporters so when things are going well it is great, but they are challenging due to the expectation they have.
"We have to manage their expectation but also the expectation of the players. In the first couple of weeks I was in, the comment was in that Gloucester expect to win the league almost every year.
"The reality is that doesn't happen but we have a bunch of very ambitious players so we have to manage those expectations. We know it will be an emotional rollercoaster in the first year and it will have ups and downs but the challenge for us is that when things are going well, we won't be getting carried away.
"On the other side, if things aren't going well then we need to make sure nobody gets too down. We know where we are going and we know where we want to get but how long that will take is anybody's guess."
Much is expected of Richard Hibbard at Gloucester this term © Getty Images
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.