IF GLOUCESTER didn’t know it before, they do now. This is the business end of the season. Last week’s defeat by Newcastle – a third Premiership loss in succession – prompted yet another downward revision of the forecasts. Bryan Redpath’s resignation as Director of Rugby made for a double dip.
That was messy to say the least. At the start of the week, the rumour mill was linking him to the vacant position at Sale – with, or so it seemed, little supporting evidence beyond the fact that he had enjoyed five years as a player at the Manchester club.
Redpath’s instant and forthright declaration that he was staying put calmed fears at Kingsholm – but only temporarily. Redpath’s about-turn has re-ignited the issue. The timing – in the very week that Gloucester play Sale in a match vital to both sides – makes a return to the north-west very likely indeed.
Gloucester’s defeat by Newcastle – coupled with Sale’s victory over Bath – has left them in seventh place, two points behind the Mancunians with just two matches to play. If they lose to Sale, Gloucester will lose their chance of reaching next year’s Heineken Cup, a competition they lit up this season with their stunning pool defeat of Toulouse.
Failure to finish in the Premiership top six will mean that next year’s European rugby will be played in the Amlin Challenge Cup – the Lada to the Heineken’s Porsche.
Instead of rubbing shoulders with the great and glamorous thoroughbreds of Europe, the club will be going head to head with the scrappy and scruffy mongrels of the game. Players will be swapping the known – or at least easily analysed – quantities of teams in heavily televised competitions for the unknown. Fans used to swanning around the inner sanctums of the game in Europe will be reduced to ‘yomping’ to its furthest outposts.
And the effect on the club’s finances will be huge. Heineken Cup rugby is a definite boost to a club’s coffers. Amlin Challenge Cup rugby, unless the team makes it to the final stages, is not.
So, not much at stake this weekend, then. Both teams have recruited imaginatively for next season – England bad boy Danny Cipriani and Scotland lock Richie Gray heading for Manchester while All Black Jimmy Cowan and England No.8 Ben Morgan are on their way to Kingsholm. Both of them quite obviously have the big stage in mind. Only one of them can make it.
Sale can theoretically afford to lose to Gloucester but then they would have to beat table-toppers Harlequins in their final match of the season while hoping that Gloucester came unstuck at London Irish. The Cherry and Whites don’t have that option.
Both teams have lost to Newcastle in recent weeks as the north-easterners have tenaciously clung on to Premiership survival. But, while Sale have at least restored some morale by beating Bath, Gloucester have managed to lose to second-from-bottom Wasps and Exeter as well.
The Cherry and Whites have threatened to win all three of the matches they have lost in the last month but in the end have come unstuck against teams that appeared ‘to want it more’.
It’s about time that it was Gloucester to whom that phrase applies. Not just for the fans, who have suffered such frustration in recent months. But also for the money men.