Johan Ackermann Gloucester era: relative progress but little success

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On Friday 15th May Gloucester Rugby announced that Head Coach Johan Ackermann would be leaving the club to join NNT Docomo Red Hurricanes in Japan.

How will Ackermann’s time at Gloucester be remembered?

Johan Ackermann leaves Gloucester

Johan Ackermann departs England after just over two and a half seasons at Gloucester. He arrived having guided the little-fancied Lions to two successive Super Rugby finals. He was known for encouraging attractive attacking rugby and Gloucester was a natural fit for him.

Ackermann arrived after Gloucester had finished ninth for a third time in four seasons. Laurie Fisher had left as Head Coach in acrimonious circumstances before the 2016/17 season end. After his first season, Champions Cup rugby was delivered, albeit via a convoluted backdoor route. At this point it looked like the start of a shift in fortunes.

Relative progress but little success

2018/19 saw Gloucester finish third and reach the Premiership play-offs for the first time since 2011, and much was expected for the current 2019/20 season. However, performances have been erratic, and Gloucester currently sits in the overly familiar ninth position again.

Of course, the halting of the season due to coronavirus makes it hard to judge Ackermann’s third season, as Gloucester could still have made the top six. Indeed they still could if the season does resume. But sights were higher than that, especially with Saracens removed from the play-off equation.

Johan Ackermann set out a positive long-term vision, something that had been missing at Gloucester. After several changes of Head Coaches and Directors of Rugby, it seemed like he and David Humphreys were going to be able to provide the continuity and direction the club needed. Several South Africans followed Ackermann to Gloucester, beefing up a pack that had been underpowered in recent years.

Selection policy not matching objectives

While Ackermann was generally a popular figure with players and supporters, selection strategy at times became increasingly grating with supporters. Whilst Ackermann can rightly take credit for the emergence of Louis Rees-Zammit, it could be argued that over-rotation and selection decisions cost Gloucester a Champions Cup quarter-final place.

Even in Round Two, an obviously below full-strength team was sent to Montpellier. The team fielded performed valiantly against a very powerful opposition, and had a shot at winning the game in the final play. A win there and the Pool could have panned out very differently. Many supporters rightly questioned why a key aim was to reach the Champions Cup, then not compete to progress.

Long-running issues not resolved

Similarly, the issue that sank Laurie Fisher in 2017 was not resolved in the Ackermann era. Gloucester has become well known for throwing away leads, often in the final few minutes. The 2018 Challenge Cup final was agonizingly lost to the Cardiff Blues when in a commanding position.

Then this season, a bonus-point win was thrown away in Connacht that was another contributing factor to missing out on a quarter-final spot. Here, an 11 point lead was lost in the final three minutes when the game should have been seen out.

Under Ackermann Gloucester increasingly became a second-half team; often behind at half time, they would then come out and blitz the opposition to take the win. This was supposedly a deliberate and favoured tactic of Ackermann, but it was becoming less successful, particularly in 2020. Most recently both Exeter and Sale went to Kingsholm and won comfortably, with Gloucester not able to rally until it was far too late.

The future beyond the Johan Ackermann era

It is pretty clear that Gloucester is in a stronger place than they were pre-Ackermann. World-class players like Danny Cipriani and Franco Mostert have been attracted to Kingsholm and Jonny May will be joining them in July. What is important now is that this isn’t the start of another new era, where a new Head Coach attempts to start again with the squad and the club’s strategic plan.

Speculation on who will take over has of course begun, but it seems likely that an internal figure like Rory Teague will take temporary charge, especially if the current season can restart. What Gloucester really needs is someone who can continue and build on the playing style and team ethos that Ackermann has developed.

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