Former Lions coach Johan Ackermann is establishing a new pride at Gloucester, writes MARTIN GILLINGHAM.
International-class South African locks are ubiquitous across Europe. Most clubs have one, some more. And in one of England’s most parochial rugby corners they are celebrating having two of the best – one who is a player and the other their head coach.
Those with their roots in places like Brits and Benoni have become every bit as welcome to the regulars in Gloucester’s famed Shed as those from either Brockworth or Broadway. Even before he’d set out for the Cotswolds, Franco Mostert had caught the attention of English fans; his telling touch to dislodge the ball from Brad Shields’ grasp as he fell over the tryline in the latter stages of the second Test in Bloemfontein halted any chance England had of saving the series. While fans in the pubs along Gloucester’s Kingsholm Road let out a spontaneous collective groan, frustration among ‘Glaws’ aficionados will have swiftly dissipated and given way to smug smiles. ‘He’s one of ours next season,’ they breathed into their pint glasses.
Gloucester is one of English rugby’s traditional powerhouses. They’ve been playing at Kingsholm for more than a century and almost 50 years ago won English rugby’s first national knockout cup. They’ve produced British & Irish Lions like Steve Boyle, Mike Teague, Mike Burton and Phil Vickery. It’s a club which is English to its jockstrap.
Yet, as professional rugby moves through its third decade, fans of the cherry ’n whites find themselves turning forever more to their heritage for succour. Despite having played in two finals they have yet to win England’s Premiership. It’s a gaping hole for a club so great and charged with filling it for the next few seasons is the most successful coach of a South African Super Rugby franchise since the great Bulls era of almost a decade ago.
The announcement of Johan Ackermann’s imminent arrival last year was met with enthusiasm. Ackermann, now 48, is in English eyes the archetypal South African – blond, blue-eyed, bruising; with the reputation as a muscular enforcer as a player and an uncompromising manager as a coach. Those who have regular contact with him in the Premiership report that the 13-times capped Springbok is steadfastly cooperative, mild-mannered and unfailingly polite. None of which, of course, negates all the previous stuff, but it does reveal the human side of a man who has had to make huge adjustments.
‘There is a big difference in the culture here,’ he says. ‘And there’s the weather. When things are not going so well in South Africa and you want to get away from it, you just drive out to the bushveld. I can’t do that here. I also can’t turn to my first language when I need to express myself.
‘Rugby is a simple game. It’s the man management that is different and the challenge. I’ve had to learn how to work with all the personalities and there’s a difference in the way players relate to you.
‘Back home, no player would ever call you by your name. It’s “coach”. Even if I spoke to a player from an opposing team it’s “coach”. In England, players are comfortable in themselves. That opened my eyes. At first I thought this or that guy was being a bit arrogant. But he wasn’t; it’s just a culture thing.’
From next season there will be a few more members of the Gloucester playing staff capable of understanding a spontaneous Afrikaans outburst should Ackermann be moved to deliver one. In consultation with his director of rugby, the former Ireland flyhalf David Humphreys, Ackermann has offset departures by adding seven new players to the squad. Five of those are South African, three of whom were part of Ackermann’s pack for that last match of his tenure in charge of the Lions, the 2017 Super Rugby final. Given another – his son Ruan – is already on the payroll, it is clear Ackermann has faith in old friends, though it is apparent those to whom he now reports trust his judgement.
As well as Mostert, Ruan Dreyer and Jaco Kriel are swapping life on the Reef for West Country limestone. Chuck in Sharks hooker Franco Marais and Gerbrandt Grobler, who will embark on his third season in Europe after spells at Racing 92 and Munster, and from next season there will be at least two rows of Afrikaans speakers on the team bus.
Overshadowing the extent of the South African influx is the imminent arrival of English rugby’s most prolific talent, Danny Cipriani, who, despite his brilliance over 80 minutes on the field, carries a health warning for his occasional excesses off it. He arrives at Gloucester having been ‘let go’ by Wasps. Ackermann met Cipriani in Johannesburg in June while on a part-business, part-pleasure trip home which took him to Ellis Park for the first Test.
‘He’s a player of real quality,’ Ackermann says. ‘We had a brief meeting and a chat.’
Ackermann’s first season in England promised more than it eventually delivered.
It started on the Premiership’s opening night last September with a resounding victory against defending champions Exeter. A month later they clinched a precious victory in the derby match at Bath before one of the season’s highlights, when a second-half fightback inspired by the coach’s son saw them overhaul then European champions Saracens. A week later they followed that up with a 29-7 win at eventual semi-finalists Newcastle.
Gloucester’s underperforming years, characterised by occasional highs and all-too-frequent lows, appeared to be a thing of the past. They were travelling smoothly in Europe’s secondary competition, the Challenge Cup, and were looking odds-on to break up the Premiership’s top four cartel by qualifying for the playoffs. But then came the last six rounds of Premiership matches where wins against London Irish and Harlequins were offset by home defeats against Newcastle and Bath, while they conceded an aggregate of more than a century of points on visits to Exeter and Saracens.
‘The last part of the season caught me off-guard,’ Ackermann admits. ’There was a lot to play for, but we played poorly. There were games in which we either didn’t start well or ended badly.’
The Challenge Cup final against the Cardiff Blues in Bilbao fitted the second description. Gloucester were cruising at half-time with a 20-6 lead, which would have been at least five points greater had they not been denied a superb try erroneously called back by a shrill blast of referee Jérôme Garcè’s whistle for a forward pass, which TV replays demonstrated was anything but.
It was a night when Gloucester certainly didn’t get the rub of the green, yet the Blues’ second-half revival exposed the cherry ’n white’s capacity to implode and 65 seconds before the end, Gareth Anscombe landed the penalty that took the trophy to Wales.
‘I was hugely disappointed,’ Ackermann says. ‘And I won’t hide behind the fact there were some debatable calls. We lacked bite and intensity. We must look at ourselves. Lack of consistency has been Gloucester’s problem for a while. Halfway through the season I felt sure we were breaking that.’
Even so – and despite its disappointing denouement – it was a season that deserved reward, which came in the form of qualification for next season’s Champions Cup, the next best thing to a top-four Premiership finish. It is a significant landmark and, as Ackermann stresses, an incentive for his squad, who will compete in club rugby’s most competitive tournament for the first time in five years.
Spirit and ambition are rejuvenated at Kingsholm, with Ackermann’s involvement credited for the uplift. As if to acknowledge it – as well as to roll out the welcome mat for the new influx of South Africans and particularly those from the coach’s former Johannesburg franchise – the club founded in 1873 has gone through a re-branding exercise. The club’s new crest is a lion.
‘People think I did that but I had no influence. In fact, the process started before I’d even arrived,’ Ackermann insists, only for an impish smile to break from one corner of his mouth. ‘I suppose it’s either me following the lion, or the lion following me.’
This article first appeared in the August 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine.