There were crazy scenes in France over the weekend as Steffon Armitage slotted the kick that won Biarritz a penalty shoot-out against Bayonne to earn the final spot in next season’s Top14. Biarritz had finished 3ʳᵈ in Pro D2, but made it through the playoffs (which include the top 6 teams, with the top 2 getting byes in the first round) to the final, where they lost to table-topping Perpignan.
Meanwhile over in England, RFU Championship table-toppers Ealing Trailfinders were hammered 0-60 at home in the home leg of the final against Premiership cheaters Saracens, who were fielding a team chock-full of internationals. Saracens are now just 80 minutes away from being welcomed back into the Premiership, despite rules on promotion stating that a team needs to be able to show proof that they have been within the salary cap for the past 2 seasons (which they haven’t) in order to be promoted. Get ready for a season of BT peddling the “revenge tour” or “redemption tour” narratives for all of their matches.
The final was just a formality anyway, as Ealing had just found out that Premiership Rugby had denied them the opportunity to be promoted as they failed to provide proof before a set deadline that they had a home ground that met requirements. Of course, it’s never that simple though, as Ealing knew their home ground wasn’t sufficient so arranged a ground share for a suitable stadium, but were awaiting confirmation from Premiership Rugby as to the finding they would receive as a non-shareholder in the Premiership. In a league where the majority of teams are being forced to go semi-pro due to the lack of funding from the RFU, it is already hard enough for a team to rise up and challenge the relegated Premiership team (who get a parachute payment to help them) for a spot in the top flight without all the extra red tape and efforts against them from Premiership Rugby.
This is not sustainable in the long term, and it is a clear ploy to introduce a long-term ringfencing of the Premiership sooner rather than later (this is already happening this season due to the impact of COVID-19 on the table). Meanwhile, talent continues to leave these shores to go to France, where both the Top14 an Pro D2 are fully professional and a third tier of professional rugby is soon to come into effect. Only with such a model can a top-flight team have any realistic chance of holding onto its top players when being relegated, while the depth in the quality of player base grows as teams face tougher tests on a weekly basis.
The Premiership may be one of the best rugby leagues in the world, but by the RFU letting them have their own way and not sufficiently supporting the other leagues, the chance of another fairytale story like that of Exeter looks like nothing more than a work of fiction…
The Glaws family has been growing in recent years. As well as the main team, the academy has been going from strength to strength and one of the big benefits of this has been Hartpury RFC, who will generally have a couple of Gloucester players registered to play for them and last year won promotion to the Championship following an unbeaten campaign. Gloucester-Hartpury Women’s RFC were also formed in 2014 and have been included in the new Premier 15s competition.
With all 3 leagues now well underway – and the first break of the season coming up for the men’s leagues for Europe and the British & Irish Cup – I thought that this would be a good chance to look at how each of the teams are doing this season.
The first season of the Premier 15s could not have gone much better for the women so far. 4 rounds of matches see Glos-Hartpury sitting 4thin the league with 3 wins and 1 loss, with a points difference of +54. They have also scored 3 try-bonus points to total 15 points so far. They have won against Richmond, Wasps and Darlington Mowden Park Sharks, and even their loss was a narrow 28-20 defeat at Bristol.
Considering they are such a new team and had been playing in a league below most of their opponents, I thought that this season may be a struggle for them, but they have recruited well and boast a number of players capped by England, including WRWC2017 squad members Zoe Aldcroft and Sarah Bern, Bianca Blackburn, World Cup winner Ceri Large and Megan Goddard, who has been named in the first ever Barbarians women’s squad.
It is still early days and they still need to play the early leaders Harlequins and Saracens – who are both currently unbeaten – but I feel that Glos-Hartpury have the ability to finish at least mid-table and perhaps even hold onto a top-4 spot.
Despite going unbeaten – and getting try-bonus points in all but 2 – in National League 1 last season, I was worried that Hartpury may struggle with the jump up to the professional RFU Championship. So far those fears seem largely unfounded, as they have won 2, drawn 1 and lost 3 of their opening 6 matches, leaving them 7th in the table with 16 points. They may currently have a losing record, but even their losses have been close affairs: 31-28 at Nottingham, 19-20 against Jersey and the season opening 26-15 at Bristol. This Bristol team are probably one of the strongest teams to feature in the league in modern rugby, yet from what I’ve heard Hartpury were unlucky with a couple of decisions in this game that could have easily resulted in them stealing the win.
Hartpury have a pair of experienced Premiership props in former Gloucester players Rupert Harden and Dan Murphy and also have a couple of capped internationals in Rhys Oakley and Robbie Shaw. But where Hartpury should be really excited is in their young players, and their links with Gloucester Rugby. Maliq Holden looked an evasive runner in the BUCS Men’s Rugby Championship Final in April, and Gloucester have also supplied 4 academy players this season: Charlie Chapman, Alex Craig, Harry Randall and Alex Seville.
I am a massive fan of former Hartpury and Gloucester scrum half Dan Robson and think he should be given the chance to start for England. But I am really excited by Harry Randall and honestly think he will be the starter for England in the future. He has really impressed me whenever I have seen him play, whether for Hartpury or the England U20s. When I went to Kingsholm for the Charlie Sharples Testimonial – 2 pre-season friendlies for Gloucester against Hartpury and Scarlets – my uncle and I came away both saying that Randall was the best 9 on the pitch that evening! He may not look like a stereotypical modern rugby player – he often looks dwarfed by the players around him – but he reads the game well and reacts quickly to take advantage of any gap in the defence. I can’t wait to see him featuring for Gloucester in future years.
We may have to go back to the 2012/13 season to find the last time Gloucester finished in the top half of the table, but the arrival of Johan Ackermann from the Lions have given fans hope that a return to the top could soon be on the cards. So far it has been a mixed bag for the cherry and whites: they have won all 3 of their home games – including the season-opener against the defending champions – but have lost all 3 away games and currently sit in a familiar 8th place with 14 points. The 57-10 loss at Sale a few weeks back has been a huge downer for fans but on the whole even if the results have not always been there, there has been evidence that things are picking up at the club. Kingsholm once again looks a fortress and there is some great attacking play coming from the team, so it is only a matter of time before the results start coming on the road.
Like many teams, Gloucester are down a number of players at the moment through injury: Tom Marshall and Ross Moriarty are both likely to be regular starters yet neither has featured yet this season. Other expected regulars Charlie Sharples, Matt Scott, Mark Atkinson, Ed Slater, Billy Burns and Owen Williams have all missed time too. Combined with that, they lost star winger Jonny May late in the summer to Leicester and also lost Carl Fearns after protracted negotiations. Considering all these losses, and with the Lion’s run to the Super Rugby Final delaying Ackermann’s arrival until 3 weeks before the start of the season, I think that 3 wins from 6 and 2 bonus points is a good starting point to build from when the big names are back.
There have been a couple of reasons for Gloucester fan to smile so far. New signings Ruan Ackermann and Jason Woodward have quickly made an impact at their new club. Let’s not forget that Woodward was able to beat out Julian Savea to a starting spot on the wing at the Hurricanes, so I expect him to move into the 11 shirt once Tom Marshall is back… the thought of 2 kiwis in our back 3 must surely be exciting Shedheads. A late signing, Ruan Ackermann has been big for Gloucester so far with Moriarty out injured. He is a big bruising player and at only 21 is just going to get better and better. Judging by the way Ackermann has been setting up his back rows so far, I can imagine Ackermann and Moriarty often taking the field together at 6 and 8. What must be remembered though is that he has not really had an offseason, so will likely need a break or heavily reduced minutes as the season goes on. But by far the best news so far for Gloucester has been the form of Henry Trinder. The centre – finally getting a run of games without injury – is showing the Harry Potter magic that earned him a call-up to the England squad to face the Barbarians in 2014 and you have to imagine that if he can keep this form going and sidestep any injuries like he is opposition players [full credit to my mate Phil Alder for that line] then he could put himself in contention for more England caps.
Some fans may disagree and feel that top 5 is a must this season. While this would be great, I will myself be happy with 6th/7th providing the performances are clearly improved from last year and there is less of questioning as to which team will turn up each week… we’re Gloucester, after all, not Les Bleus! If we don’t start to get this consistency, then I think it will be time to show David Humphreys the door.