'The attacking brand of rugby Gloucester play is very exciting. But I get a lot of pride from the set-piece'
“I love this club as much as anyone,” Alex Brown says to me. He glowers briefly, those dark eyes flashing as they did on any of the near 250 times he played in Cherry and White. “And I can tell you that, even though these last few months have been the most difficult I’ve ever endured, I know we are now headed in the right direction.”
Brown is newly installed as Gloucester Rugby’s Chief Commercial Officer, having been asked to take on a fair amount of the role that the previous Director of Rugby would have shouldered. He is in charge of contracts; he’s been busy. There are few people who know the club as well as Brown, few who know what Gloucester need right now.
“COVID has produced so many issues and difficulties for the club. Myself, Lance and the team have worked so hard to get a future. We have, to date, made sixteen different versions of the budget for next year. The picture has changed so many times.
“We’ve made people redundant, cut pay, it’s been very tough. And on top of all of that, we have had to hire a new head coach. As I say, very tough, but I think we are turning a corner.”
A number of men have tried the head coach role before. What is different this time around?
“A young, promising, English coach was the key metric for us. Someone who understands the league in which we are operating. It is so competitive, so relentless; I think it takes time for any coach coming in, who does not have Premiership experience, to understand that.
“I have learnt so much from all the different coaches we’ve had, they’ve all been successful in different ways, but as a club, we have lost the aura that we used to have. I think our new man has that. There’s a determined desire to succeed. And he’s young, he has everything to prove and will work so hard on behalf of this club.
“He’s very impressive; I know the fans will love him.”
Across a corridor of Kingsholm is the office of the CEO. Another man new to the role, but someone who has spent a large amount of his previous career thriving.
Lance Bradley served ten years at the top of Mitsubishi Motors in the UK, one of the world’s leading car manufacturers; a sector as competitive as any. He is softly spoken, but there is a steel to his personality forged from some extremely tenacious marketplaces. He comes with an inbuilt ability to think differently and, on occasion, ask difficult questions.
Bradley took the top job at Gloucester back in September of 2019. A date which seems like a lifetime ago.
Before England had dispatched the All Blacks in a quite sensational World Cup semi-final and then lost a heart-breaking final. Before the Saracens’ saga unravelled and the salary cap had been scrutinised and reapplied. Before Coronavirus had turned worlds upside down and professional rugby had to face the very real prospect of zero income. Before a time when difficult questions needed to be asked.
“On the commercial side, that was easy, I was used to asking how things were done. But on the playing side, that was more difficult. And it became apparent things weren’t right. We lost all our preseason games, and bar a couple of opening games, we started to lose, and most importantly, lose in the same way, every week.
“I suggested that if we carried on like that we could get relegated and the response was, “We’ve not been relegated before, so we won’t get relegated now.” I found that outlook concerning.
“If you carry on doing the same thing, you will get the same results.”
“As CEO, I wanted to talk to everyone. I was open and honest about who I spoke to. Management knew; there were no secret meetings. But the more people I spoke to, the more I felt things weren’t right. That’s not a rugby feeling, that’s a management feeling.
“I never want to interfere in things that aren’t my job. But when you get the information I was, you kinda have to. I asked difficult questions on the rugby side and they weren’t well received. Those questions started the process; it played out like it did.”
When it came to hiring a new head coach, Bradley was once again advised that there were certain things he couldn’t do.
“Apparently, you can’t involve the players in that process. I was told that in no uncertain terms. But my understanding is that, ultimately, when you bring in a new leader to a group of people already in place, you need buy-in. You can’t force someone onto those people.
“If you involve them in the process, then they feel part of the decision and are much more likely to try and make it work. We asked the senior playing group what the most important attributes were in a new head coach. We then used that criteria to run an extensive search. We then ran an interview process and reduced the large field to two candidates and took those two names back to that same group.
“They were unanimous in choosing George (Skivington). It wasn’t a democratic election but we listened to what they had to say. Rugby is a sport in which the whole team needs to contribute. Despite being told that it couldn’t be done, we achieved that in appointing George.”
There are questions, however: Bradley, Brown and Skivington make a green trio, despite their experience elsewhere, they do lack familiarity with their respective roles.
“You could put a negative spin on it,” counters Brown, “I’m sure there will be some people who will. But whilst I will concede that we are all new to our jobs in relative terms, there is one major advantage to that: we question everything.
“One of the first things Lance said to us all was that we can’t have the answer: ‘that’s just the way we have always done it.’ We are existing in such turbulent and difficult times, you have to think about everything you do. You can’t just accept things in their present state. We have to ask, can we make that better?”
“If I’m honest,” continues Brown, “I don’t think we made the most of the talent available to us locally. We haven’t utilised the talent pool we have in this area. It’s all on our doorstep and we have to make use of that. George has that same vision and we want to bring that back to Kingsholm.”
It is 10:25pm, when my mobile phone flashes into life. Having just spent a long first day at his new club, George Skivington is calling me as requested.
I pick up and, despite the late hour, there is still a noticeable brightness to his voice. He won’t talk to me about the circumstances surrounding him leaving London Irish, that is for others, but he is more than happy to talk about Gloucester.
“I have a pretty good understanding of all the different clubs in the Premiership, and this is a rugby hotbed. As a young player, I was shaped by a fair few visits down to Kingsholm and when the opportunity came through to me, I didn’t think twice.
“I’m an honest guy. I have always worked hard and the competitive and relentless nature of the Premiership is what I live for. But I recognise how tricky it is. This is an emotional sport, as well as a physical one, you have to understand how that can take its toll.
“The new salary restrictions are going to put even more pressure on squads and players, and you have to appreciate that.
“We have an interesting period coming up when we restart; an interesting dynamic. We will get a chance to see everyone play. I want to give everyone a chance to impress me in the remainder of this season. There are massive positives in finishing this season and I will be giving guys opportunities.
“I don’t really know the guys here, and I am coming in with no pre-conceptions. It’s going to be an interesting few months.”
Skivington has temporarily moved up to Gloucester and left his young family behind in Surrey. But they will not be far behind him.
“We have to sort all of that out, it’s going on in the background, moving them here, new schools; it’s a lot to try and deal with. But I know my family will love this club too.
“You can feel the loyalty this place creates. The connection to the city, so many fans have grown up here, been coming to this club for so long. That’s powerful, we will need to harness that.
“My job is not to rip things up and start over. The attacking brand of rugby Gloucester has had in recent times is very exciting. But I get a lot of pride from the set-piece; from making those things work. Maybe that hasn’t been a strength in recent seasons. That is what I want to get right.”
Getting things right will be paramount. As loyal as the fans are down in Gloucester, they are knowledgeable and vociferous. They also love winning.
There will be many interested to see how quickly this team can make that happen.
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