Gloucester has always had talent. They have always had the potential to beat anyone on their day. They have always been competitive but lacked consistency. Consequently the Cherry and Whites have not made the Premiership play-offs since the 2010/11 season. So what makes this year different to predict a Gloucester Rugby top four finish?
The combination of Johan Ackermann as coach and Danny Cipriani at ten puts Gloucester in a position to compete. Ackermann’s leadership and exciting style of play invigorated players and fans alike last season. A seventh-place finish was achieved but it could have been so much more. Whilst it would be an over-exaggeration to suggest Gloucester desperately needed a fly-half, the securing of a genuine top quality playmaker gives this Gloucester squad an edge.
Waiting for the weekend pic.twitter.com/77f1MDbR5Y
— Gloucester Rugby (@gloucesterrugby) August 29, 2018
South African power improves pack
The solid foundation of the Gloucester pack has been significantly bolstered. An even bigger South African presence in the form of Ruan Dreyer, Franco Mostert, Gerbrandt Gobler and Jaco Kriel should result in the desired increase in physicality and all-around quality. On the other hand the loss of Ross Moriarty is a blow. However, the upward trajectory of the talented Ruan Ackermann, Lewis Ludlow, Freddie Clarke and Jake Polledri, alongside the experience of Ben Morgan and Springbok Kriel, suggests that the back-row should be an area of strength for the Cherry and Whites.
Versatile backline options could pay dividends
Gloucester’s back line’s greatest strength is its flexibility. They have the option of playmakers in the centres with Owen Williams and Billy Twelvetrees, physicality from Mark Atkinson and Matt Banahan or an outside break through Henry Trinder. The immensely talented Tom Marshall and Jason Woodward can play a number of positions alongside Bath’s great utility back of the past decade Banahan.
The controlling game of scrum-half Willi Heinz is beautifully augmented by the pace of the explosive Ben Vellacott. It is variety and ability to alter personnel over a season that has seen Exeter, Saracens and Wasps pull away from the rest. This is something that Gloucester can now rival.
The assortment of outside back talent possessed by Gloucester should be fully unleashed by Cipriani. His ability to create gaps and provide moments of inspiration make Gloucester the most highly anticipated outfit in the league.
Fourth place up for grabs
But the question remains whether this will push Gloucester from a good side to a contender. It seems safe to suggest that Exeter and Saracens will retain the top two spots. Wasps look set to maintain a play-off place although the injury to Jimmy Gopperth and the adaptation period for Lima Sopoaga make this far from guaranteed.
Gloucester, Premiership semi-finalists Newcastle Falcons and Leicester Tigers will compete for fourth. This is assuming that Bath, Sale, Harlequins and Northampton will be chasing the top six rather than the playoffs. The additional quality that Gloucester have imported alongside a more settled coaching set-up gives them the edge over their rivals.
Leicester’s squad has been damaged by the call-ups of Matt Toomua and Tatafu Polota-Nau to the Wallabies. This has been compounded by long-term injury of signing Guy Thompson which all further Gloucester’s chances.
Whilst Newcastle were excellent last year, the retention of a place in the Champions Cup would mark success for the Falcons as they seek to consolidate themselves as one of the top outfits in England. Back-to-back places in the playoffs may be a step too far for the Falcons.
Fourth place will be up for grabs with a slight gap developing between the top three and the rest. The much-maligned Cipriani has an excellent opportunity to put an overly dramatic pre-season behind him in the best possible way by leading Gloucester to a long-awaited return to contender status.
You can read further analysis of the European race from Rhiannon Garth Jones.
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