By Ali Stokes
Entering a training week two days after a disappointing draw with your fiercest rivals can present a significant challenge for coaches when it comes to permeating their charges with an energetic temperament. Lighting a fire in the belly of a side with enough aggression disintegrate feelings apathy..
An achievement that Gloucester boss Johan Ackermann seemed to have achieved last weeks in the build-up to his side's 35-13 bonus-point victory over Bristol Bears last weekend.
The next challenge for the former Springbok lock? Prepping his men for an assault on the nearly impregnable fortress of the current Premiership champions, Allianz Park. An up-taking the South African believes his side's speed of play, that he has been developing since his arrival, can secure.
In the same fixture last year, Ackermann's men went down 62-12 to Saracens, a defeat that has not sat well in the mind of the Gloucester boss.
"The biggest disappointment was that we had a decent game up until then and then we let it slip." Ackermann said. "You know, hopefully, we've got no excuses around to be competing against them.
"Obviously, we let ourselves down last year with that last game in the Premiership. Now it's quite a flip of a coin, it's quite early in the season.
While an away trip to Saracens backyard is rivalled only by the Premiership's most southern stronghold, Sandy Park, an uncharacteristically slow start to Saracens' first three games of the season and the mystery muscle strain suffered by England and Lions fly-half Owen Farrell may provide Gloucester with a somewhat easier task of planting their flag in a potentially season -defining victory.
While the potential of a second-week absence of Farrell from Saracens' side will undoubtedly benefit Ackermann's Allianz Park siege, he insists the potential selection of Saracens' stand-in fly-half, Alex Goode (a fullback by trade) will not alter the way Gloucester intend to play.
"When you look at Saracens as a team, as a whole, they are so well organised. Defensively, they're so strong that your plans can't be around just one player." Ackermann said.
"In the attack, their threats are just all over. Big ball carries like Michael Rhodes and Billy Vunipola are still there. They [Saracens] are well structured and they aren't going to change that for one player.
"So they are still going to put a lot of pressure on you defensively, they're still going to put a lot of good kick chasers to pressure you, and with their nines that are so good with their kicking game. So I don't think that's [Gloucester's tactics] going to change.
After his expressed mistrust in the practice of tailor-made training weeks in anticipation of specific opposition, Ackermann admitted that the free-flowing, multifaceted and high skill game he has endeavoured to imbue Gloucester could expose the achilles heel of Saracens' power game.
When presented with the possibility Saracens' 950kg+ pack will likely lack the mobility and pace of his own forward unit, Ackermann said:
"Yeah I mean, you're 100% right, there's pros and cons [to sizable packs], you know. Obviously, we can move the ball and hopefully, somewhere, we can create opportunities.
"But, without the ball, they obviously have the ability to smash and bash you around. If it's not Vincent Koch it's one of the Vunipola brothers, and if it's not them it's Maro Itoje or Will Skelton coming around the corners.
"So it's going to be a challenge, we're going to have to front up. They are big men, we can't change that. But hopefully, with the speed of play and the way we want to play, we will get some opportunities somewhere."
The 48-year-old Johannesburg native embarked upon his crusade of turning Gloucester into one of the most skilful, attack-minded sides in the Premiership twelve months ago, and admits that his side are still some way off the finished project.
Specifically, he noted Gloucester's decision-making when faced with less than ideal situations and their failings in idenfitying the attacking opportunities that arise with a chaotic field of play.
"It's getting better, It's still not there in the sense that we're still not picking the right decisions at the right time." Ackermann said of Gloucester's new brand of rugby.
"On top of that, we wanted to make a few changes and also incorporate some new things [this season]. We saw glimpses of it against Bath, we saw glimpses of it against Bristol, but we haven't put that full package together.
"I know that in 80-minutes you don't have everything going your way, other teams will also have moments where they are on a roll.
"But it's just our accuracy and those things we want to change, it's not consistent.
"Where we can get better, as well, is to play off of when things go wrong, we're obviously not reacting well to that. So there's definitely opportunities to grow our game."
Gloucester will face off with Mark McCall's Saracens side this Sunday, a fixture broadcast on BT Sport for a 3pm kick-off time.
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