Subplots galore as Munster head for Kingsholm
Special incentive for Gloucester’s Grobler to make a point against his former club
Gloucester head coach Johan Ackermann with Munster coach Johann van Graan. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Take away the needle and there’s an old boys’ reunion aspect to this Gloucester-Munster renewal.
Former Ireland outhalf David Humphreys is the director of rugby at Gloucester and former Irish centre, Jonny Bell, the defence coach.
Gloucester coach Johan Ackermann is a friend of Munster coach Johan van Graan from the Munster coach’s time with the Bulls. Ackermann is also mates with Munster defence coach JP Ferreira, who made the move from Super Rugby side Lions in December 2017.
“Quality person, first of all, a very good technical coach,” said the Gloucester coach of van Graan. “Doesn’t leave a stone unturned and great people skills. That’s why they kept performing well. He’s a good friend alongside, their defence coach, who was my defence coach.”
Munster fullback, Mike Haley, who played with both an England XV and the England Saxons, will also catch up with old friends, Gloucester centre Billy Twelvetrees and a fit outhalf Danny Cipriani, who today is expected to provide a cameo to the main bill.
Cipriani may be on his last throw of the dice with England coach Eddie Jones. The mercurial outhalf is coming off a straight red card last time out against Munster for a high tackle followed by injury to a pectoral muscle against Exeter in the fourth round.
Jones knows it, Cipriani knows it and Ackermann knows that there are few chances remaining for the 31-year-old, who recently attended a meeting of England’s elite squad over the new year.
But Ackermann this week was in full flow, drawing similarities between the ethos of the English rugby town and that of Munster.
Community support and an historic ground that goes back to the beginning of the last century offers ‘The Shed’, a covered terrace of 4,000 fans running the length of the Kingsholm pitch. Munster will have their atmosphere.
Gloucester have just come off a mini losing spree to Leicester and Sale, which has been more frustrating than an existential worry. Wrong options and bad execution against Leicester last week in Welford Road brought their season to a plateau more than a downward spiral. They remain fourth on the Premiership table.
Admitting to being nervous as Munster always travel well, Ackermann has been sending out mixed messages. He’s a pragmatic South African, wary about what is arriving and has gone out of his way to take the pressure of his players by downplaying the importance of the match by bigging up the Premiership. Given the stakes, Munster is the biggest match of the season so far surely.
“We also have to play Saracens,” said Ackermann. “So I don’t think you can say it’s the biggest game. You can argue we play Exeter, who are in our pool, but they’re also in the Premiership.”
Ackermann also has a lot of respect for Munster. He’s aware of the history and even if it is not the team of the vintage years of O’Connell, Flannery, Foley and O’Gara, he respects the fearless mentality and the winning culture Gloucester will face.
“This is going to be a massive game, where we can put in a massive performance and show people we do belong at this level,” said Ackermann. “Or it’s going to be one where we say we learnt a lot of lessons. But I think people don’t want to hear that anymore.
“There is a great history between the two clubs; we don’t play them often. It makes it a nice, big game.”
Even more than friends reuniting, one man out to impress is Gerbrandt Grobler, who is picked in the second row with Ed Slater to face Jean Kleyn and Tadhg Beirne. There was a three-year IRFU contract on the table for the South African lock, who left Munster over the summer under a cloud of controversy. He prefers to describe it as a media fiasco.
The 26-year-old had been banned for taking the steroid drostanolone while at the Stormers prompting a national debate about the signing a drug cheat. It forced Grobler out of Ireland.
However, he found a soulmate in the Gloucester coach and former lock Ackermann who, as a 26-year-old Springbok in 1997 and like Grobler struggling with injuries, took a banned steroid nandrolone, was caught and banned for two years.
So, for the fans travelling, there’s a series of jousting matches within the main event with South African and Irish friendships colliding and the ever-watchable Cipriani hoping to flick that switch for Gloucester, himself and Eddie Jones.