Gloucester fans celebrated late into the night last Friday after witnessing their team beat Saracens 23-17 in the Aviva Premiership.
It was something of a famous win against the star-stacked team from London and it didn’t bother the Gloucester fans one bit that Saracens were missing some of their best players who were on England duty.
Watching proceedings unfold at the Kingsholm Stadium was recently appointed Gloucester coach Johan Ackermann, who joined the club in August and a man who is said to have the magic touch.
He turned the fortunes of the Lions around in the space of a few years and Gloucester are hoping he can do the same for them. They’ve made a decent enough start to the new season, winning five of their eight games, and expectations are high for a good showing in the coming months.
Ackermann left the Lions in the week after the side had featured in their second consecutive Super Rugby final in August and he was straight into the new job.
“It’s been very difficult for me, and my family, from the start. Because the Lions went so deep into Super Rugby, I arrived late in the pre-season and when I got off the plane in England it was basically straight onto one heading to Portugal for a camp,” explains Ackermann.
“I had no time to put things in place, deal with structures, really get to know the players. There was no window to talk about a culture and a style; it was almost straight into the first game,” said Ackermann this week. “All those things one usually does in an off-season ... we weren’t able to, so it’s like playing catch up, still.”
However, he feels things are slowly starting to fall into place, that the players are getting a feel for him and his coaching style and understanding better what he expects of them on the field.
“The thing is there are so many different cultures here in the team, players from Wales, New Zealand, Scotland, and other places ... and they’re not sure how I want them to play. I need to change things that weren’t working, I need to get unity in the team, so finding the right balance isn’t easy.
“I also have to get accustomed to everyone and get a feel for how they think about the game, and their unique personalities. It’s also a new management team so it’s a big adaptation. And there are other challenges, too. For me, I’m out of my comfort zone. At the Lions everyone knew everyone, we all knew what our roles were. We’d established a good and unique culture, something we still have to do here and only when you’re out of South Africa do you realise how spoilt we are.
“The stadiums in SA are world class, the equipment new and good, the weather great... what I mean is rugby is big in South Africa. Here it’s a little different, you often have to fend for yourself at away venues, the weather is trying and we’re not even into the full winter.
“Bus trips to away games means lots of planning ... it’s a big learning school. All these things impact the players, too, and that’s why away wins are so big. Trying to accommodate all the different cultures and styles is also hard at times.
“These are some of the challenges I’m facing and having to get used to, but it’s also a great opportunity to grow and learn and become better as a person and coach.”
Given time Ackermann believes he can build a strong team that can challenge for the Premiership title.
“The players are all willing to work hard and that’s important. They however need to understand that the mindset when it comes to away fixtures must be the same as when at home. And one of the biggest areas we need to improve is in decision-making.”
So how does the Premiership compare to Super Rugby?
“The quality of rugby is high, it’s good,” he says. “There is no easy game, that’s for sure. There are top players, locals and internationals, and anyone can beat anyone on a day. It’s very physical, but not as fast as Super Rugby.”
So while Ackermann is settling in, his family, he says, has found the going especially difficult. Let’s not forget he moved to Gloucester with his whole family; his wife, school-going daughter, and two sons, the eldest of course No8 Ruan, who squared off with Saracens’ Schalk Burger last Friday.
“From a personal point it’s been a big adaptation. My daughter is now in an English school, learning in English for the first time, which is tough on her. My wife has also found it hard going. Little things like filling up your own car at the petrol station, packing your own groceries ... we’re getting used to a new way of life.
“Packing up and moving your whole family isn’t easy. We left all that we knew behind, friends and family, our roots. But we’ve also enjoyed new experiences,and Gloucester is a beautiful place, so as tough as it’s been we’ve also been blessed and are thankful for the opportunity to be here.”
Gloucester’s most recent Premiership game was a 29-7 victory at Newcastle on Friday night which moved them up to third place, just four points behind leaders Exeter