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Not since the summer of 1997 has the start of a new season been such an exciting prospect for Gloucester Rugby supporters. 17 years ago, it was the arrival of Fanolua, Tombs and Saint Andre following Tom Walkinshaw’s acquisition of the club which captivated those in cherry and white. Almost a generation on, a new broom has swept through Gloucester with just as much vigour.

I’m not sure many people would have seen the swift and decisive events that followed the defeat at Worcester on the final day of the season taking place. Only those right at the hub of the club – probably only Stephen Vaughan and Ryan Walkinshaw – will know everything that went on. On the face of it, the timing was curious. Nigel Davies had made decisions over the large number of players he wished to release, and recruited heavily for the months ahead. He had even put the wheels in motion to try and secure the signature of James Hook, a deal which Stephen Vaughan pushed over the line. The view of many supporters was that he ought to be given the chance to work with his rebuilt squad.

The board, however, were bold. They didn’t want to marry a raft of new players with a structure that didn’t function, so with a very corporate approach they set about changing that too. No longer was it a case of sifting through cv’s. Outside consultants were employed to look at successful teams in various sports, and how their management teams were set up.

Globally, the field was narrowed down and one cannot deny the quality and reputation of those the club have appointed. Interestingly, we now have an Irishman at the top of the tree in David Humphries, after a Welshman (Davies) a Scotsman (Redpath) and an Englishman (Ryan) but his support network is drawn from a broader church with, rather than coaches to look after forwards and backs, men to oversee attack and defence. The blending of the
Nick Walshe and John Muggleton’s skills and personalities will be down to Laurie Fisher, who looks like a prematurely grey version of the Spanish golfer Miguel Angel Himenez.

Joking aside, Himenez has won 20 tournaments in Europe to Gloucester’s one, but being in the Challenge Cup this season ought to mean the group stages are more about novelty than difficulty. Gloucester’s only previous meeting with Brive was here in a quarter final in 2006. Zebre play in Parma, but not at the ground I visited in 2001 to see one of James Forrester’s early appearances in a Gloucester shirt, and you might have got a sighting of Oyonnax in July’s Tour de France, as stage 11 finished there. I’m told while the town is small, the scenery alone is worth the trip, and the team – backed by around 6,000 supporters for Top 14 games – are half decent, especially at home.

That said, the order of matches should in no way preclude Gloucester from securing a home quarter final, and it is a level of competition where some of the Academy squad may get cameo appearances. The Academy now has 23 players, nine more than last season. Talent has again been drawn from a wide area – including England and Scotland Under 20’s and Championship side Jersey, with lock James Voss leaving the island to come to Gloucester. Not all of them will make the next step, but Elliott Stooke’s progress last season will be an example to the group.

Amongst all that is new – and who doesn’t believe different faces can lead to an improvement – two notable experiences have been consigned to the memory. One is a muddy pitch at Kingston Park, as Newcastle have installed a 4G surface (although that won’t change the swirling wind), and the other is watching Mike Tindall.

He will miss the day to day training, but his reputation as a World Cup winner and a player with over 250 top flight club games behind him stands tall, just as he did in Gloucester’s back division for the past nine seasons. I’m sure he will have offers to do many different things, but alongside his ambassadorial role for the Midlands Air Ambulance, and with the World Cup a little over a year away, surely the club could find a niche for Mike in a promotional capacity between now and the tournament. All in all, it will be a season with as many talking points as new faces, both on the pitch and on the touchline.

Photograph : Copyright http://www.zimbio.com

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