You do wonder if Nigel Davies might be permitting himself a little chuckle. Davies, if you recall, was Gloucester’s director of rugby last season before being abruptly dismissed after his side lost to the already relegated Worcester in the final match of the campaign.
Worse than that, though, Gloucester slumped to ninth place in the Aviva Premiership. That was simply not good enough. It was a position described by the club’s chief executive, Stephen Vaughan, as a “big disappointment”.
So let us glance at the table now. Where do we find Gloucester? Yep: ninth. It is indeed a big disappointment again, not least to this correspondent, who predicted Gloucester might challenge the top four this season. That might have been wildly optimistic in expecting the newcomers off the field – David Humphreys, Laurie Fisher, Nick Walshe and John Muggleton – to gel swiftly with the new players on it, John Afoa, Richard Hibbard and James Hook.
But, Gloucester should be better than this. They have lost three of their past four home Premiership matches – it appears ladders are regularly being left outside their so-called Kingsholm fortress for enemies to storm the place – and last weekend endured a record Premiership defeat, 39-16, by bitter rivals Bath.
The time for excuses is over, as captain Billy Twelvetrees admits: “While you can say we’re a new team together, we’re fully aware of what we’re about now.”
There were some hugely worrying aspects to that display against Bath. First was the scrummage, which was supposed to have been a problem solved this season. But they just coughed up penalty after penalty. It was frustrating to watch, and clearly just as frustrating to be involved in. “It’s a difficult area,” Twelvetrees says. “I don’t understand what’s going on in the scrum, I don’t think many people do, but we just have to deal with it better on the day.”
Second was Gloucester’s attack. It was dreadfully ponderous and predictable, with one line stretched across the field and little cleverness in formation or operation. At one point Gloucester went through 29 phases before Hook attempted a dropped goal.
Overall Bath made 182 tackles to Gloucester’s 93. Yet Bath scored three tries and Gloucester one. “We have to use the ball better rather than bash people over the line,” Twelvetrees admits. “But that’s up to us as playmakers and players to analyse teams.”
Fortunately Gloucester have an opportunity to make amends on Sunday, with another home fixture – and another sell-out – against Wasps. “We owe it to ourselves, we owe it to the supporters,” Twelvetrees says.
Wasps are the talk of the land at the moment, with their stunning move to the Ricoh Arena and instant success on the field with a 48-16 victory against London Irish, and off it with a record 28,254 crowd. But, crucially, they have not won an away game this season.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to try and bounce back,” Hook says. “We’ve obviously been bitterly disappointed this week but it’s a great chance to get out there and put the wrongs to right. They will come down full of confidence and rightly so. We have to concentrate on ourselves. Obviously we have to be aware of what they will bring and they have some big threats in their team, but we have to get our own house in order and we have to bounce back. It’s as simple as that really.”
One of the criticisms of Hook has been his game management – the major reason why Wales head coach Warren Gatland has never been that eager to select him – and on Sunday afternoon he comes up against one of the better exponents of the art in the Premiership.
Andy Goode will rarely have been compared with Hook and he certainly has his limitations, not least a Falstaffian figure, but, boy, he knows his way around a rugby field. Last weekend he scored a record 33 points.
“I’ve played against Andy a couple of times and everyone is aware of what a quality player he is,” Hook says. “He has a great kicking game, is a running threat as well and his experience really shows. We will be aware of what he brings but they have quality through the team and are well coached by Dai Young and Stephen Jones.”
Mention of Jones, the Wasps backs coach, is apposite. Like Goode, the former fly-half Jones knew how to structure a game of rugby union.
Indeed for years the Jones versus Hook debate raged in Welsh rugby. Pragmatism versus flair, or reality versus romance. Mostly Jones won, now being Wales’s second most-capped player behind Gethin Jenkins with 104 caps for his country.
Of Hook’s 77 caps, only 20 began in the No10 jersey. Personally I have always thought 13 to be his best position. But now he is making a fist of the 10 shirt again (he spent much of last season at full-back for Perpignan), even though, before his exit, Davies had signed Greig Laidlaw to play at fly-half for Gloucester.
The Scotsman is at scrum-half now, and Hook’s process of settling in alongside him has not exactly been smothered in smoothness and success.
Twelvetrees has hardly flourished outside him either, his England place now utterly uncertain despite playing in the final, successful Test of the autumn against Australia.
Laidlaw, Hook and Twelvetrees should be a potent triumvirate. But their stutterings reflect those of their team. As Twelvetrees says: “We have great players and a great squad. We just have to be a bit smarter in putting teams away.”
Indeed they do, beginning this afternoon. With Exeter and Leicester away, and Saracens at home, to come soon, it may be their easiest task for a while.