Monday, August 07, 2006

Gloucester Rugby: A New Season

The Coles shall be heading north midweek, to the land of the Scots via Manchester and with a visit to Pickering, I believe, to slip in on the way home. I understand modern parlance calls it ‘breaking the journey up’. I shall report back in a couple of weeks but there won’t be any posts until then methinks.

The holiday means I shall miss the first Gloucester RFC friendly match - against Saracens this Friday - which is a shame as I always enjoy checking out and analysing new players and this season, in particular, there are many new ‘uns to behold and celebrate. I don’t recall sitting here in August and feeling quite so confident about the chances for the city. For once we appear to have found a potent balance of pace and power, strength and style.

Our future successes will depend heavily on our front five and I am optimistic that we have a set of superb props that will see us through the term well. The experienced continental swagger of Nieto, Collazo and Califano represents a trio of bruisers that no club will want to encounter while the hugely promising Forster and the effective and, in my opinion, vastly underrated Wood will let no side down. The hookers are contrasting characters. The burly Azam is a frightfully physical gentleman and, again, is a name that other teams will not appreciate seeing on the teamsheet before a match. The lighter but nippier Mefin Davies enjoyed a decent run in the team last spring and demonstrated what a clever and unselfishly effective component he is. Both have roles to play. Azam is scarier; Davies does the basics more consistently. Again youth waits in the wings in the shape of the enthusiastic and ambitious Elloway and the rated new boy Macmillan.

We have rarely been so blessed in the second row as this season. The signing of the inspirational Italian skipper Bortolami is an outstanding one. His leadership skills, high levels of skill and competitiveness and, importantly, his aura, should serve us well. He has to prove the real deal. The noble and intelligent Brown should continue to impress but the new fellow James should be pressing for a starting berth; by all accounts he is a no-nonsense and rugged behemoth in the mould of Worcester’s Gillies or Collier. The enterprising Pendlebury and the old hand Eustace make up the numbers.

I suppose a major challenge for coach Ryan will be to discover the most successful balance in a back row that still lacks a ball carrier of the class of the, as yet, unreplaced Junior Paramore. Of course Hazell remains a nugget in the seven shirt while a lot depends on how much Forrester has bulked up to add a more steely presence to his expressionist array of skills at eight. The three ‘B’s should contest the blindside berth. I hope Balding regains the form of two years ago when he illuminated a disappointing campaign for the club with a series of old-fashioned and passionate performances that shamed a good many of his insipid team mates. Peter Buxton quietly and modestly enjoyed a fine last season but, personally, I’d love to see the honest and hard working Jake Boer clinch the six jersey and really run the ball aggressively at (and through!) enemy lines. If push came to shove, I’d nominate the South African as my favourite player of the past decade; he represents all I’d expect from a player wearing the famous cherry. Youngsters Narraway, Merriman and Matthews await chances; of the three, Will Matthews has most to prove and the new season should allow the lad sufficient opportunities to really fulfil his potential.

Behind the pack, there merrily exists a good deal of healthy competition for each position although I do have a favoured first choice selection. At scrum half, Peter Richards enjoyed a really encouraging season last time out. Although question marks remain over his service, his pace, eye for the gap, attacking zeal and ruthless will to win all impressed this scribe. Haydn Thomas has done nothing wrong and remains a worthy understudy while the new Scottish lad, Rory Lawson, could be another dark horse; by all accounts he has pace and skills in abundance. I suppose one could suggest it is a case of ‘horses for courses’ but the thrilling Lamb should be inked in as the city’s playmaker with the steady Mercier in reserve. Both are match winners but only wunderkind Lamb has the cognoscenti whispering the blessed word ‘genius’. I can’t wait to see the kiddo play again. Willy Walker can also play at outside half but I know little about the Kiwi.

The midfield should comprise Michael ‘Mike’ Tindall and the coltish and ebullient Allen. The mix of experience and youthful zest should really click. Jack Adams returns of course and I really rated his gainline-breaking √©lan last autumn before his nasty injury. How well and how fearlessly the boy Adams plays after his recovery will be interesting. I guess Rudi Keil will be cover and Walker and Simpson-Daniel are able to slot into the centre too.

I would prefer Simpson-Daniel to play at wing three-quarter though. The space that a bullying pack will create for the likes of Lamb and Richards to control matches will prove a fillip for ‘Sinbad’ and I expect Iain Balshaw to be his partner in crime. This could prove a potent pairing. The earnest and improving Mark Foster, speedy and clinical James Bailey, experienced and wholehearted Rob Thirlby all indicate the club’s strength in depth. Olly Morgan remains a thoroughbred at full back and I look forward to watching his heads-up, elegant counter-attacking again. I suggest that Willy Walker will be second choice as the unfortunate and loyal Jon Goodridge heads to Pertemps Bees for a loan spell.

I would suggest this to be the strongest squad that Gloucester has ever assembled and I anticipate a top three finish in the league and, depending on our results against Leinster, a European semi-final. Having suffered many false dawns I think the time has finally arrived for the supporters to have a really top notch team without conceivable weakness to salute. I can’t wait.

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