It’s been a tough ride for the New Zealander since arriving in England but Willi Heinz has now established himself in a Gloucester shirt following a string of influential performances. Heinz, who is affectionately nicknamed ‘57’ by some supporters after the eponymous ketchup brand, has taken the opportunities gifted to him whilst Greig Laidlaw has been away with Scotland.
Willi Heinz arrived at Gloucester for 2015/16 pre-season as damaged goods, after sustaining a broken leg during preseason of the 2015 Crusaders Super Rugby campaign. This is always a difficult background from which to begin a spell at a new club, as such a serious injury can affect a player’s ability. For example Gloucester fans may remember that another scrum-half, Dave Lewis, also suffered a broken leg in 2009 and he never had the same impact as his first few games pre-injury. Add to this the fact Heinz was lined up to be first choice number nine at the start of the season while Laidlaw was leading Scotland to the World Cup quarter finals.
In the first home game against Saracens (see match report here http://old.lastwordonsports.com/2015/10/24/gloucester-rugby-lose-unbeaten-home-record-saracens/) Heinz quickly gained a reputation for box-kicking that did not endear him to the Kingsholm faithful. However it can be seen over the course of the season to date that Gloucester have employed kick-chase tactics in a number of games and the relative lack of success of these left Heinz in the firing line. Only when Laidlaw was also kicking with such regularity, which does not play to his strengths, could it be seen that this wasn’t all down to the New Zealander.
Fast forward a few months and Heinz has made 16 appearances this season, sometimes starting above Greig Laidlaw even when he has not been on international duty. He has been able to build a good half-back partnership with James Hook, with the two having a big influence in the win away at Bath in particular. In Gloucester’s most recent game, a rare bonus point victory against Newcastle Falcons, Heinz assisted the first two tries and was able to get a talented backline going that often flatters to deceive.
It has taken fans a while to warm to the 29 year old from Christchurch, given that Laidlaw is a true fans’ favourite and world-class player, as well as the club’s first choice goal-kicker. It is therefore credit to the player that he has put his head down and applied himself, overcoming his injury to give the coaching team a selection dilemma when the Six Nations is over. It is also perhaps no coincidence that Hook’s performances have improved and he has scored tries in the last three consecutive home games.
At the Gloucester Fans Forum held on the 1st March Director of Rugby David Humphreys spoke about the club’s low squad age relative to other Premiership teams, and the need for experience. Willi Heinz is exactly the sort of player that brings big-game knowledge and an All Black winning mentality, something I discussed recently concerning Jeremy Thrush – see http://old.lastwordonsports.com/2016/02/25/jeremy-thrush-questions-gloucester-rugbys-mentality/. He is proving to be a valuable member of the squad and should be considered a key part of Gloucester’s plans for the next couple of years in the push for the top four and Champions Cup rugby.