Premiership coaches on the hotseat

Date published: October 5 2016

The 2016/17 Premiership season may only be five weeks old but already coaches are beginning to feel the heat for slow and lacklustre starts.

After a few years of relative stability, there was plenty of movement in the coaching boxes of Premiership clubs this past off-season.

Long-time Harlequins boss Conor O’Shea made the move into international management, taking up a position with Italy and vacating the top chair at the Stoop for head coach John Kingston.

Bath and Mike Ford also parted ways, with former Crusaders head coach Todd Blackadder coming in as the new director of rugby, whilst Dean Ryan left Worcester for a role with the Rugby Football Union and though Worcester haven’t replaced him as of yet, it’s led to increased responsibilities for head coach Carl Hogg and high performance director Nick Johnston.

To see that much movement in the space of a few months is rare but that doesn’t mean that the movement is over just yet, with a couple of seats around the Premiership beginning to get particularly toasty.

The two hottest seats in the competition right now are both situated in the south-west and first up is Gloucester’s David Humphreys.

The former Ulster coach took over in 2014 and has led the Cherry and Whites to ninth and eighth-place finishes in his two seasons at the club. Laurie Fisher was brought in from the Brumbies to be Humphreys’ right-hand man and whilst there have been sporadic flashes of potential over that period, Gloucester have not significantly improved as a team during their tenure.

Or, if they have improved over the last two seasons, it has been at a slower rate than most of the teams around them and has seen them tread water as a result. They currently sit ninth in the Premiership, with two losing bonus points the only difference between them and Harlequins in 11th.

Just as the overall story has been with Gloucester over the last two seasons, there have been rare moments of excellence this season but they have been overwhelmed and suffocated by a plethora of basic errors that have led to defeats.

Their current plight has even led ex-players to question the coaching group, with Andy Hazell, who made over 250 appearances for the Cherry and Whites, stating on social media that the “ethos and culture from the top does not sit well” with him.

Current players have also taken umbrage, with ex-All Black lock Jeremy Thrush lambasting players and coaches alike after their loss to Saracens last season, whilst Ross Moriarty criticised the conservative game plan in their recent loss to Bath.

With a new ownership group in place at Kingsholm, it remains to be seen how they view this lacklustre start to the season but with critiques of Gloucester’s recruitment and playing style nothing new, Humphreys must be beginning to feel the pressure mount.

Trips to Exeter and Northampton sandwich the upcoming European window, before they take on Wasps and Saracens in November. At this point, it’s difficult to see where the wins will come from for the Cherry and Whites over the next two months.

The other director of rugby who will be feeling the heat is Bristol’s Andy Robinson. The newly-promoted side have lost all five of their games so far this season, including a ten-try, 70-point walloping at the hands of Wasps and a 39-0 loss to Saracens that saw them nilled in front of their home crowd at Ashton Gate.

Losses to arguably the two best sides in England are nothing to be surprised about but the manner in which they lost was worrying. Their other losses have come at the hands of Harlequins, Northampton and Exeter and again, are not particularly surprising for a promoted side, but their return of a single losing bonus point after five rounds of rugby is concerning.

That said, what is heaping pressure onto Robinson’s shoulders more than anything are the performances of the sides tipped in the pre-season to be Bristol’s relegation rivals. Newcastle have already won two games and picked up two losing bonus points, whilst Worcester have a win and a draw to their name and are yet to welcome back Francois Hougaard, Bryce Heem and Chris Pennell this season.

It has left Bristol seven points adrift at the bottom, with a struggling Quins side their closest company, but based on what the season has offered up so far, that gap looks more likely to increase, rather than decrease, as time goes on. Robinson does, however, have a prime opportunity to alleviate some of that pressure this month.

Bristol travel north to take on Newcastle this weekend, before welcoming Sale to Ashton Gate after the European break. Robinson cannot let Newcastle and Worcester, as well as Quins and Gloucester, get away from Bristol in the table and a win from one of those two fixtures could give him a little breathing room.

If a win doesn’t come in those fixtures, well, Steve Lansdown hasn’t spent all this money and all these years getting Bristol promoted to the Premiership just to see them drop straight back down again.

Some other names do float around when the conversation of coaching hotseats comes up, such as John Kingston and Richard Cockerill, but with Kingston just five games into his tenure and Cockerill’s Leicester currently sitting fourth in the table, it’s nothing more than idle chatter at the moment.

There is nothing idle about the positions of Humphreys or Robinson, however, and it’s not hyperbolic to say that the next three or four fixtures could make or break their clubs’ seasons.

Chopping and changing often causes more harm than good but both men will know they need to give their owners a reason to keep the faith over the remainder of this season, lest they find themselves searching for a new position.

by Alex Shaw