Full Johan Ackermann interview ahead of Champions Cup return

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NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 03: Johan Ackermann, the Gloucester head coach, faces the media at the European Launch of the Gallagher Premiership Rugby clubs at St James' Park on October 3, 2018 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Johan Ackermann spoke to the media ahead of the upcoming Champions Cup tie with Exeter Chiefs and looked ahead at redemption following their defeat in the Premiership just a few weeks ago. Robert Rees has the full Johan Ackermann interview.

Could you reflect on Saturday’s win and sitting in third in the table how satisfied are you being where you are at this point in the season?

We have to be pleased. There are matches that we can reflect on and say if we did a bit better against Harlequins and got a point out of Exeter where we could have been. If you asked us at the start of the season after eight or nine rounds that destiny is in your own hands then I’ll take that.

I’m satisfied with Saturday’s result as Worcester are always a team that’ll make it tough. There is a lot of rugby left and a lot of tough games left to play, but it’s a good position to be in.

Moving on to Exeter and you know them pretty well from a few weeks ago, what will you take from that first game and what are you looking to do better?

We’ve got to focus on the  new challenge and the new competition. It’s probably going to be a new team for Exeter as well as they bring back a few players that weren’t available for that match. For us it’s resetting everything and looking at ourselves to execute better than we did and we can’t control anything that comes other than our own mindset and our way of playing.

Looking at our discipline and one or two soft moments. We know they’re a leading side in this competition and in the UK and they’ll test you on all fronts. They’ll be physical and they are going to be good at set piece. They are going to be testing you defensively because they keep the ball well for long periods so we’ll have to be at our best if we want to give any opportunity.

It’s probably the tightest pool after two rounds.

Yes, purely because the results have gone all around. We beat Castres, Castres go and beat Exeter and then Munster beat us so it’s all a mixed bag at the moment so the pool is open and competitive. It’s a great challenge for us as the sides we play are all champions sides. It’s great challenge for the players to be involved in this competition.

Exeter have done brilliantly domestically, but are still looking to go up that next step in Europe, why do you think it hasn’t happened for them?

It’s a process. You look at last season, they were unlucky perhaps in one or two games. That’s the margins we’re in. You lose a game or you make a bad tackle or you make a decision where you don’t pass then the margins are small.

We’ll experience it now. There’s no formula to how long it’ll take you, but the squad is being tested playing from Premiership to Heineken Cup. The reality is that last year in the Challenge Cup we had the luxury to play some of the Italian sides and some of the French sides where we could have rested some players. If you want to progress in this tournament then you have to play your best players until you know you can’t qualify any more.

Everybody is still quite close and every side will want to play their best side and if you look at their squad, they’ve got something like 64 players, a lot of international players and now they’ve got a lot of new internationals. They’ll build more and more experience and that’s what takes time in this competition.

You’ve added Jaco Visagie to the European squad.

Jaco was good in the short space that he’s been here and we feel with Franco Marais still out and we still have to wait on James Hanson as well as he has to go for a scan on his hand. He injured his hand on Saturday and at the moment it’s still quite swollen. We’ll have to investigate to see if there’s something more.

If he’s going to be out for a while then Todd Gleave is struggling with a hand injury as well then we’re down to two hookers so it’s a blessing that he is here and even more so that we had to register him.

Jaco Kriel isn’t registered.

Jaco came injured and we had to rehab him so at the stage of registration we didn’t register him. Then Saturday he had a tweak in his hamstring and he wouldn’t have been fit for this coming week anyhow and that’s why we didn’t register him and we’ll just play with the back row we’ve got for the next two rounds.

You’ve made the three changes you can make so where are you with  the props now. Is there anyone close to coming back?

We will actually be good in a week or two. Alex Seville is cleared so he’s ready to go. We must get him match fit and that’ll be difficult until the Premiership games are back.

Paddy McAllister is next week or the week after to be 100%. We’re almost there with the props with Ruan Dreyer about three to four weeks away from returning. If those two come back then we’ve got the option to move Josh Hohneck to tighthead and we’ll be in a much better position with the props.

There’s been a lot of debate recently it’s so tight at the bottom. Where do you see that going and do you think it’s inevitable that it becomes ringfenced?

I must be honest, I haven’t heard a lot about the discussion. Our focus is what lies ahead and the challenge to stay in this twelve team competition and to stay out of that relegation spot.

I think I said it when I first arrived in Gloucester when the first rumours came up. I was in a promotion-relegation game with the Lions and it was a tense affair that I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.

Only the RFU will know what aspirations are for the clubs below. If it’s clear that 13 is the number and nobody else has aspiration then it’s probably an easy thing to do. It’ll take a lot of pressure off the bottom teams and it’ll bring a consistency for them with a competitive squad going forwards.

If you add a team then it means extra games so somewhere you must cut games elsewhere or it’ll be more and more games. If they’re willing to make sacrifices elsewhere it could work.

The one thing I know from a coaching point of view is you can only deal with the hand you’ve got. It’s difficult if you’re in the bottom because you know it was only one or two fine margins that you landed there.

There’s a chance that a big club could go this season, from your point a view you must be pleased that you’re well away from that?

I’ve got empathy for whoever it’s going to be. There’s a lot of rugby left so we’ll just focus on ourselves and ensure we aren’t in that position. If you’re on the bottom then every club has an aspiration to play in the best league and you have to be certain where to cap it.

After the relegation playoff between the Kings and the Lions, relegation was abolished the next year in South Africa wasn’t it?

It was said from there-on that every bottom side will play against the other side, but in 2014 they abolished it. Common sense prevailed. Even we lost players and when we got back we had to get try and get players and it’s similar to the Kings. They recruited all those players and when they got down there they lost players. You can’t get consistency in your squad because you gain and lose players all the time.

Do you feel as a coach that Super Rugby without relegation made it a good environment to not be afraid to take risks?

We could have signed players, but we could have promised them Super Rugby. In 2013 a lot of sponsors left us and in 2014 we played without no sponsor on the jersey, but when they saw we started performing with a young group it was still a hard sell to get the big names on board but it was a starting point for the marketing department.

Emirates signed a five year deal – Way cheaper than any other deal – and they got two Super Rugby finals three-four years later. You can plan ahead a bit and any player wants to know where they fit in the squad and will they play at the top level of competition.

It gave us that freedom. You’re not always going to have that luxury, obviously you want to perform and if you start performing teams analyse you more, there’s going to be a bigger expectation from the supporters so you get that early start and they’ll get away with it for one or two seasons to develop it. After that they have to show progress.

As a group of players it gives you time to develop over one or two seasons.

We’re off the back of an autumn campaign where Gloucester players haven’t got the England recognition that some people feel they deserve, has that surprised you and can it galvanise you ahead of the European campaign?

I think it’s an advantage that we’ve got less disruption than other sides, but it’s not something that will bring us different motivation. As much as I’d like players to play for England we’re still the vehicle that must get them there. If we do well as a group and a team then the only thing they can’t control the rest. That’s up to the England staff.

It’s only when a player stands head and shoulders above that you’ll start thinking about bringing in a player and changing it up. We can just knuckle down as a team and performing and hopefully the rest will take care of itself.

Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images

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