Saracens like a bear with a sore head
PREMIERSHIP SPOTLIGHT: Johan Ackermann emits a wry smile. It was early July when Gloucester learned they would play Leicester away and Saracens at home in the weekends leading into the opening round European game versus Toulouse.
Events, though, have meant this tall order has only become taller.
There they were at Welford Road last Saturday, plunged into a messy arm-wrestle with an enemy scrapping for crumbs following their zero-from-two start to the Gallagher Premiership.
Gloucester’s confident two-from-two form buckled, missing a penalty at one end and then conceding down the other in the closing minutes to lose by three points. Cruel.
Now they are facing another backs-to-the-wall opposition. Taking on Saracens at any time is difficult enough. Just look at how Gloucester was annihilated in the opening 20 minutes of last May’s Premiership semi-final at Allianz Park.
But to be facing the Londoners just four days after the club that has dominated English club rugby in recent times learned they have been fined £5.3million and deducted 35 points, well that is just playing with fire.
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Emotional teams are trouble. “It’s almost like with Leicester, you play them after two losses you know you are going to get a side that is going to be bang on it, and I think it is the same thing with Saracens,” Ackermann told RugbyPass ahead of the intriguing Saturday afternoon showdown at Kingsholm.
“In that sense, it is unfortunate that were play Saracens now because they are going to be quite emotional and well-motivated. Saying that, we have to control our standard.
“We didn’t play well in the first three weeks consistently so for us, if we really want to compete in this competition or in any competition, we have to be able to play well on a weekly basis and it starts on Saturday against Sarries. Even though we know they are going to be quite like a bear with a sore head, we have to match that.”
The finer details of the punishment meted out to Saracens, sanctions that will be enforced if the Londoners are unsuccessful in their appeal, are something Ackermann isn’t inclined to dwell on. “It’s something that is between Saracens and the Premiership,” he shrugged. “I don’t want to really get involved there.
“It [the salary cap] is part of the competition and we can just rely that we abide by that and just get on with it. At the end of the day, on the field it is important that we play as good as we can and not worry about the other teams.”
Especially at home. Gloucester won nine of their eleven home Premiership games last term, losing out to just Harlequins and Sale, but they know from their Champions Cup pool mishap, where they were beaten twice in three matches, that they simply can’t turn up at Kingsholm expecting things to automatically happen just because they are at home.
“The reality is the players thought exactly that, that it would work out itself. I don’t want to use the injuries that we had in the front row as an excuse. We struggled a bit there but apart from that, I do believe that we must do the hard work by playing well at home.
“There is no expectation to play away. You can go out and play without that added pressure, but we have to learn to handle the pressure to perform at home. It is a great time for Gloucester, for the supporters, when they see these teams coming and we have to live up to that expectation.”
Gloucester looked the part in the league two weekends ago, slithering past Wasps to a bonus-point win despite the rain, and it was their inability to keep trust in this approach that most disappointed Ackermann when ambushed at Leicester.
“The disappointing thing is the opportunities we left out there. We could have easily got a lot more points but we didn’t play the style that we want to play. We moved away from our DNA of playing an attacking brand of rugby and that is the disappointing thing.
“We showed in difficult conditions against Wasps we can still score tries, and we moved away from that. We are not there yet. Hopefully, this will be a bit of a setback that will wake up the players and get their form going.”
Leicester was a particularly uncomfortable place to be for Ackermann, Tom Hardwick’s result-stealing penalty on 79 minutes followed by raucous full-time Tigers cheers. But it wasn’t as if he came away from the East Midlands city without any reason to smile.
Earlier that Saturday he had sat down in his hotel room to lap up South Africa’s World Cup final victory over England. For sure, it was quite a different setting to how he watched the Springboks clinch their first title 24 years previously, Ackermann being part of the crowd that tumultuous day in Johannesburg. But all the same, the TV made for sweet viewing.
“My wife and one of my sons were in South Africa when they won last Saturday and they said the whole place, it doesn’t matter where you go, where you walk, it’s flags, it’s Springboks jerseys, it’s a happy place and that is what the country needed.
“It is always going through tough times. There is always negativity with the state of our economy and with our crime rate and things, so the sport just brings people together, it brings hope. You look at Siya Kolisi and the message that he gave and how our youngsters, our next generation, can aspire. We can work together and we can be one country, one team.
“That is what people don’t realise. For a few hours last Saturday and with this trophy tour that the Springboks are on, people can put their differences aside and they can really support each other and they can really show how strong the country can be. So it is tremendous.
“I was fortunate to be at the ’95 World Cup when we won it and the joy in the streets with the people. This will exceed that.
“There was an expectation back then to do well but I don’t think there was a big exception to do well now and this reality that we have a black captain will probably bring even more unity to the country… I’m very happy, very proud.
By Liam Heagney, RugbyPass