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Jovial Balmain comes of age

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'I'm now banned from going all-inclusive...' - Gloucester's Fraser Balmain on holidays, Danny Cipriani and World Rugby's latest scrum tweak

Fraser Balmain doesn’t beat about the bush when telling RugbyPass how he is finding the extended Premiership club pre-season caused by next month’s World Cup.

“I can’t say I am a big fan… I’m desperate for a game to come up,” quipped the Gloucester tighthead, definitely speaking from the perspective that all work in training and no weekend play is making him a dull boy.

He wasn’t very dull when he skipped off on holiday at the end of term but, given the over-indulgence that resulted, it’s perhaps best that the new Premiership season isn’t getting underway until mid-October.

Balmain tipped the scales last season at just below 117kgs, around 18st 4lbs in old currency, but the jolly 27-year-old Geordie learned the hard way this summer about the dangers of holiday high jinx, an escapade he now looks back on with a smile and a chuckle.

“I got a couple of trips away. I took my mother away for her 70th and went to Cancun with the missus. I’d a good break. I went on an all-inclusive for the first time and I think I’m banned. I was pretty heavy (coming back). It goes on really easily and it harder to chip away off. I’m in the middle of attempting that. 24-hour room service killed us.”

Getting rid of the excess, though, hasn’t caused any panic. Gloucester’s approach to these extra weeks at their disposal before the rugby starts has been to nurture rather than beast their players, a tactic prop forward Balmain is grateful for as he builds towards the October 19 kick-off away to Sale.

“They have given us time to work on specific things rather than just four more weeks of getting beasted really. They have used it really well here,” he explained. “Because we have the extra weeks we started off a lot more gradual. Dan Tobin is in charge of our strength and conditioning and he is terrific, the best I have ever had.

“He eased us in and we worked on running technique and building up that endurance rather than coming in, as it normally happens, and start off with a mad rate up straight away. Because we have had time to ease into it there has been a lot fewer injuries and lads are feeling a lot better for it.

Danny Cipriani is one exception, though. Having pre-seasoned with England and failed to make their World Cup squad, he is not due back at club training until next week. Every cloud has a silver lining, though, Balmain suggesting that England’s loss will become Gloucester’s gain once the maverick playmaker gets back into the swing of things at Kingsholm.

“I would have picked him if I was a coach,” he said, bemused that his colleague’s face didn’t fit with Eddie Jones. “I was pretty surprised he was left out. I don’t know what the reason was. It was pretty disappointing… but from a selfish point of view, he is going to be here the whole time, so you can’t really complain too much. It wasn’t the best for him obviously but I’m sure he will come back from it.”

Bouncing back precisely sums up Balmain’s re-emergence at Gloucester. He felt he was going nowhere at Leicester – a certain Dan Cole was at the top of the queue – and he took remedial action to ensure his development was no longer stunted.

There were only 2,286 Premiership minutes during his six seasons at Welford Road: 26 starts, 38 runs off the bench as well as an appearance as an England replacement in their 2014 fixture against the Barbarians.

However, he felt he could be doing much more and while moving clubs was a danger as All Blacks World Cup winner John Afoa was still on the Gloucester books when he signed, the switch has paid off as he has packed 1,682 Premiership minutes in 24 starts and 10 runs as a sub in two seasons at Kingsholm.

Afoa’s departure last summer to Bristol naturally helped. Balmain missed just a single fixture in Gloucester’s unexpected 23-match run to the Premiership semi-finals and that exertion, which featured 148 tackles, 106 carries, 107 metres and a few offloads thrown in for good measure, didn’t go unnoticed as he finished the year being named forward of the season by Johann Ackermann and his coaching team.

“I got stuck in a rut at Leicester and was probably never going to get first choice or be able to battle for that really,” said Balmain, recalling why he felt the need to escape the Tigers and embrace a different challenge.

“Coley [Dan Cole] is pretty set there and rightly so. He has performed year in, year out. Mentally it was better for me to start afresh somewhere and Gloucester was a club I had always liked as a player. They are always big into their forwards so I thought it would work well for me and they have got a huge fanbase. You don’t want to play at a club where there are not many fans. That was a big selling point.

“They said where their aspirations were, where they wanted the club to head to. Johann then came in and he is very good to say where we want to go and what we want to do and the way we want to play. It was all there and I have to say they have delivered on every aspect of that. It has been a terrific club to play at.

“I’m playing, so that is a big change! Probably getting used to playing week in week out is the main way to improve. I’d like to think I’m probably more consistent in the scrum and trying to get my hands on the ball more. I feel I have improved here and it’s going pretty well.

“Certainly as a front rower you are never going to recreate a scrum in training the way it is in a game, the way a ref refs it, so that is the main way to improve in that area. Don’t get me wrong, you can do a load of training and other things. You can certainly improve your skills and fitness that way. But as a prop, the best way to improve is playing.

“We were reasonably happy with how things went last year, where we ended up. We would have like to have kicked on a bit more but the main focus for the team this year is we are no flash in the plan, that it is not a one-off. We know we have got a big challenge to back things up. It’s a bigger test this year… certainly, the marker is laid down there by Saracens and we need to step up it.”

 

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Gloucester are clear on what the next step is to assist their progress, earning a home semi-final rather than have to go away to a rampant Saracens. What is less certain is whether they will need to adjust the scrum that Balmain consistently drove all last season.

It was mid-July when World Rugby outlawed the practice of front rows placing their heads onto opposition players’ shoulders between the call of bind and set on engagement. Balmain, though, can’t see the difference and he wishes the administrators would stop their constant tinkering with the set-piece that is the cornerstone of a prop’s importance.

“I don’t quite see what difference this one has made. I was watching the (Test) games, the last ones that were on, and I don’t think they were being refereed at all so I didn’t really see much change.

 

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“I have been happy the whole way through. Last year, yeah, there was probably a bit too much pressure on heads, but it was just part of the game. You can’t make the scrum a 100 per cent safe thing. It’s part of the game and part of why people like it, that physical battle, and if you start tweaking with it too much it will probably ruin what is already there.

“I’m not too keen on them changing the rules all the time. I thought it was pretty good as it was. The scrum is pretty safe. It’s very rare you get an injury as long as you train people early on what to do and if does collapse, what to do then.

“I have played there my whole career and you get used to it. If you don’t like that you wouldn’t play prop. It’s pretty simple. Most props are similar, they don’t like too much change.

“Really, you get the odd freaky accident but I don’t think you get any more than tackling someone. It is part of the game and that is why you like it. I don’t see the problem. If you get one team whose tactic is to cheat and not want to scrum, the scrums will collapse all the time and you’re going to have to reset them.

“But if you are trained right from a young age the right sort of technique, the ones that got at each other it tends to stay up and be a good battle. It’s just about teaching people the proper way to scrum rather than tweaking rules.”

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'I'm now banned from going all-inclusive...' - Gloucester's Fraser Balmain on holidays, Danny Cipriani and World Rugby's latest scrum tweak