Bonsoir tout le monde. Premiership affairs are put aside for a month now as the group stages of the two cup competitions get underway. All in all, Gloucester don’t arrive here in bad shape, but more of that later.
The players would have enjoyed the good training conditions for the bulk of the time since they reported back, but having been drowned (sic) by a deluge during last Thursday’s session, James Hook got soaked again on route to our chat about European matters, but he was still generous with his time.
Hook’s move to Kingsholm came after three years at Perpignan which ended with relegation, something no player wants on his cv.
“My worst time in the team was the last three to four months when we were struggling at the bottom of the league and had a lot of injuries” Hook told me. “We couldn’t buy a win and then being relegated at the end was a real kick in the teeth. We knew we had to be above Oyonnax (ironically, the other French team in the pool) at the end because they would send us down on the head to head record but that wasn’t the only reason we went down. There were a lot of elements to it.”
I sensed until this spring Hook had fully embraced the French experience. With only a few English speakers at Perpignan he’d had to master the language as well as the tactics, although the importance placed on European matches when it came to selection was very different to what he’d been used to.
“Boys like Luke Charteris and myself who had played in Wales were used to taking the Heineken Cup seriously, so it was odd to us when we met Gloucester last season that players were being rested” he said.
“Everything in France is about the top 14 so I’m sure how Brive and Oyonnax will approach this competition. I didn’t win at Brive in any of my 3 seasons at Perpignan, and the support there is fantastic. Oyonnax had a lot of older players last season and because they didn’t have a big squad they tended to rest players for away games. They took some big scalps at home, and I didn’t win there either.”
Hook is 29 now, and admits the chance to play regularly and to look after his family’s future were driving factors in his move back across the channel. He had known Richard Hibbard since school days, and could see the potential in the squad Gloucester had assembled, potential which ought to be more than good enough to reach the knockout stages.
In 50 previous Challenge Cup matches, Gloucester’s record is 39 wins, 10 defeats and one draw, with only La Rochelle and Biarritz winning here since the inaugural season. I think the target ought to be 24 points with hopefully bonuses to add, and Hook doesn’t disagree.
“History says if you get at least two away wins you ought to be in good shape. We don’t know what sort of teams the others will put out but we have to play what’s in front of us.”
Tonight there is limited squad rotation, with only three changes to the starting XV from Saturday at Saracens, and credit to the players for parity over the first block of matches in the Premiership.
To get through a sequence that included both Northampton and Saracens away in the top half of the table and with a positive points difference is no mean feat considering that happened at Franklins Gardens. Greig Laidlaw has been a key element in that with his goal kicking, something James Hook is happy for him to do.
“It doesn’t bother me because Greig is really accurate at the moment. I practice like I always do because there could be an injury and you have to be ready to step up. That is what our training is all about – improving as individuals and as a team.”
Brive’s solitary visit here was at the quarter final stage of this competition in 2006, when nearly 7,000 supporters saw Gloucester win 46-13. It was a season that finished with the extra time drama in the final against London Irish, and James Forrester’s decisive try. An omen perhaps, for what’s ahead…..
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