Gloucester can seal a playoff spot this weekend with a win over Worcester at Sixways stadium. Looking ahead to the task ahead head coach Johan Ackermann previewed the physical test ahead, gave the latest injury update and talked about the ongoing contract negotiations. Robert Rees has the full Johan Ackermann interview from this week.
Balancing act to keep momentum
With a few weeks off in recent months due to European rugby weekends, Johan Ackermann discussed his thoughts on the downtime, explaining, “It’s a fine balance because at one stage we could have done with keeping on playing and keeping momentum but then some of those weeks helped us get some players back from injury.
“There’s pros and cons in that, building up good momentum helps, but the secret is the boys get time to mentally and physically freshen up.”
Ackermann looking to rotate squad
Gloucester can seal their playoff spot with a win this weekend and Johan Ackermann wants to get the job done so he can rotate his squad before the post season.
He said, “There is that but as I explained last time there are weekends now where we play two games with a week off, it means you can get a bit of consistency in your team and don’t have to rotate as much because players aren’t overplaying.
“You’ve got to try and keep combinations going, but I want players to have belief that every player can start in this team and it’s up to the players that do get that opportunity to make sure they perform so they keep starting.
“In the next two or three weeks we’ll look to rotate a few players.”
Senior players in the Premiership Shield explained
Gloucester took on Harlequins in the Premiership Shield over the weekend and there were some very familiar faces for fans.
Explaining his choice to play so many senior players, Ackermann told the media, “We looked at the minutes played and if you look at Callum Braley, Freddie Clarke and especially Jake Polledri after he was out for three months post surgery.
“They played something like 100 minutes or so over a six, seven week period. So a good 40-50 minutes for them players would help their match fitness and stuff you can’t simulate in training. So that was the theory to get a few players out there and experience game time.”
With the season coming to a close Ackermann gave a contract update on a few of his players.
“Those players are all part of the team and a lot of them were involved in the Bath game, it’s just to get decent game time in them. Some of them performed so well that it’s put them in contention for selection next weekend. That’s the pressure we want, players who get an opportunity that if you perform so well you make selection difficult.
“Gareth Evans is the one player at the moment we haven’t extended, but it’s not to say we don’t want to keep him. It’s an on-going process.”
Ackermann also gave an update on Henry Purdy’s contract situation, adding “We’re still in the process of discussing Henry’s future at the club and seeing if we can get him to stay and be involved with the club. David [Humphreys] is on top of that.”
Ben Morgan’s big off season boost
Opta stats revealed this week that Ben Morgan leads the Gallagher Premiership for most carries. Talking about his influence on the team, Ackermann said, “Credit to Ben, after last season he had an up and down season with niggles and injuries and we spoke after the season about what my expectations were and he came back in tremendous form and condition.
“He reaped the rewards on the playing field and he’s become a guy we can rely on with his performances, he’s become a defensive leader for the group and playing some great rugby. He’s a decent ball carrier so it’s good we use him in that area.”
He added, “There’s a couple of them, Val was the same. He was in great condition and realised the game we want to play would do good for him, Ed Slater too. It’s a pity for Owen Williams, he physically challenged every standard and he was in tremendous form and although he didn’t play as much as he wanted to he could have played a crucial part purely because of his attitude in setting a trend.
“Every player made a difference and took up where we left off last season. There were areas we didn’t do well in, the balance of the running and kicking game that we didn’t get right and the players grow in each of those areas.”
Gloucester thriving in competitive league
Gloucester currently sit in third, with a comfortable ten point cushion over fourth placed Harlequins. Ackermann was pleased with his sides season-to-date, saying, “It’s good, but we can’t get carried away. It’s margins in this game. You can suddenly lose two or three games and the whole thing changes and that how any season can go.
“We’re not there yet to say we’re now a team that’s outperforming other teams, we’ve still got a long way to go, we’ve seen that with Saracens and Exeter proved with consistency in their performance.
“There’s still a lot of work for us to get done, but the good thing for me if you get a good feeling on where you’re going, with mistakes we made and I feel we’re going in the right direction.
“I said last year at the end, although we ended up seventh and it was a negative end with Saracens and Bath. Then stats were positive, we just didn’t make good decisions and hopefully it’ll be a step in the right direction again.
“We’re definitely not the full package and I don’t think anyone can be as teams are constantly renewing themselves.”
Gloucester have struggled at Sixways in recent years and Ackermann isn’t taking the game for granted despite the two sides league positions. Explaining, “They’re physical, they’re tremendously good without the ball and strong in defence so you have to work hard to get points against them and they’ve got ex-internationals all over.
“Francois Hougaard, Francois Venter. Those are the guys that can cut you to pieces and their set piece is good and they challenge you at the breakdown. They put a lot of heat on the break so anything less than our best will be like last year.
“They are an attacking threat, pushing sides all the way. It’s only in the last bit or one or two errors as to why they’ve lost games. They are well coached and drilled. There are lots of South Africans in their coaching staff that I know which will always make it physical.
“Sale are one of the best teams in this competition in the backline and what they’ve produced yet they couldn’t beat Worcester last week so it shows how good Worcester must be. Last time we beat them there was 2009, so they are a quality side.
“It’s going to be a mental and physical challenge. We have our goals and want to keep momentum and we want to make sure we’re ticking all the boxes. They’re also a side who have motivation why they play and where they want to be.”
He then discussed how he wants the players to change their mental approach to the game in order to win, adding “Each side will have different motivational reason, but the big thing for us if they’ve seen more value in the game than us in recent years. Because why do they get over us for such a long time and we have to change that.
“I’m not talking about win or losing, but the attitude towards the game and our minds in focus.
“My first experience last year when I played clubs for the first time, we weren’t there. We had a very good win the week before and we weren’t there on the day so, it’ll be up to us to do it better this year.
“The big thing for me is our attitude and the way we play. if that is good I can live with the mistakes and live with a loss, but we can’t afford a Bristol situation where we’re not there for 20-30 minutes because lack of attitude.”
Gloucester injury round-up
It’s slightly better news ahead of Worcester for Glaws’ fans with the return of two key players.
“Jason [Woodward] and Charlie [Sharples] have returned so that’s the good news for us. The not so good news is Tom Hudson is out for a while and Tom Marshall is also unavailable.
“Further than that everybody is ready to go. This time of the season there are a few things that need to be strapped up and hopefully the players will manage that.”
Looking at the players who came in for injured starters, Ackerman discussed the reality of playing them more, “There’s certainly a role for them. The next three weeks ideally, if we can build up enough momentum we can look to rotate a few players.
“The reality is that I want to give Seabrook more chances, but he’s got a grade one tear in his adductor so he’s out for three weeks.
“The only game he’ll be fit for is the Sale game. It’s not like we weren’t happy with his performance and Henry will still be involved because he’s fit, but it’s good to have two good guys back after we’ve been thin in those areas.”
Sealing the playoff spot
Gloucester under Johan Ackermann have been well known to not get ahead of themselves and take it one game at a time, and that’s certainly the case now. Ackermann saying, “We don’t worry about what’s happening in two, three or four weeks time. We want to keep hammering the stuff we train and keep playing to a level.
“Can we do the things we train and be consistent and that’s what we’re aiming for. If we get the job done on the weekend with a win and secure the top four then so be it, but if not we must fix it and carry on.”
Lloyd Evans back fit
Lloyd Evans started at fly half against Harlequins in the Premiership Shield and impressed upon his full return. Ackermann now looks forward to putting him together with Danny Cipriani.
He said, “It was so good to see him back and was crucial we got him back. Credit to Lloyd, he looked good and comfortable for being out a while. He can train with us now, where he couldn’t train with us for a long time and he’s had a good week with us so far so for the first time he can listen and learn from Danny [Cipriani].
“And we get both tens on the field at the same time and rubbing shoulders with each other. You’ve also got Billy Twelvetrees who can slot in at ten so it’s good to be in that situation with options.”
Young Welsh star a positive light for the future
Louis Rees-Zammit has been on scintillating form of late. Bagging some wonderful tries for both Gloucester academy and Wales U18s. His form also saw him become Gloucester’s youngest ever Premiership player when he came off the bench against Bath.
Looking at the young man’s future Ackermann proclaimed, “I’m excited about what he can bring to us. He’s definitely got development in different areas but what I love about him is his contribution and his attitude, he’s clever and thinks about the game.
“He asks the right questions. When he trained for the first time with the senior players he wasn’t shy and didn’t ask questions. He constantly asked questions to the senior players, where to do and what to do. He learns quickly.
“He’s got good attributes, got speed, is physical and he’s big. It’s good for his future and it’s up to us to nurture him and look after him and to blood him in at the right times.”
History lesson from Ackermann
Speaking about age being with the Welshman, Ackermann said, “There’s nothing like age. I was fortunate to play with Francois Steyn when he was 19 and in his first Super Rugby season and a few months later he played in the World Cup.
“He’s 19, that’s how mature he was thinking about the game. I feel the same for Louis, but it’s a different position and is different conditions, but we’re excited.
“When you move up levels, your time gets cuts down and the players get better, but we’re confident that a good off season spending time with Tom Marshall and Jason Woodward he will learn and take up the challenge.”
Academy progress has pleased Ackermann
Looking at the progress made by their academy stars this season Johan Ackermann said, “I want every player to believe that he can play for the team. It’s up to that player to challenge the whole time through training and taking their opportunities.
“If you look at the weekend against Harlequins you’ve got quite an experienced backline and Lloyd Evans, Jack Reeves and Alex Morgan look so much more comfortable by learning the hard way.
“The first seven or so games they were a young side and had to play against tough sides who were loaded with experience. They took a lot of learning from that and got more comfortable throughout the season.
“It’s a big jump out of school and into the academy and run plays and train against the senior boys who’ve been around the block. The intensity they have to get used to and that’s why they got thrown into the deep end with the injuries we had, but the quickest way to learn sometimes is to get thrown in and learn to adjust.
“I’m excited and from what I’ve seen from the U18s, we’re going to get another good crop in and the future of Gloucester will excel and if we play well hopefully we’ll inspire the youngsters at school to get excited about the rugby and come into this setup.”
“Main photo credit”