Headlines over the summer may have surrounded the vast number of South African signatures Gloucester boss Johan Ackermann attained ahead of the new season, but the former Springbok lock spoke of recent developments that could see the West Country side finally enjoy a top four return for the first time since the 2010/11 season.
At first sight, Ackermann looks to be one of the most intimidating men in a room fit to burst with players and coaches at the Premiership launch. However, the 48-year-old Johannesburg native had perhaps the widest grin at Twickenham last week in addition to adopting an engaging nature.
Our conversation leads off with the mounting excitement within Gloucester ranks regarding the freshly laid pitch at Kingsholm Stadium over the summer.
Ackermann also spoke of the benefit of laying down a part artificial (plastic), part grass pitch instead of the fully plastic equivalents currently utilised by Premiership rivals Newcastle Falcons, Worcester Warriors and reigning champions Saracens.
“Credit to the board and the management of the club, they took into account the players thoughts and welfare. They had a discussion with the playing group and listened carefully. Obviously, there was a commercial input and a medical input too, and I think the commercial would have gone fully artificial because you can get so much more out of it, but the welfare side of things got the better of the conversation.”
With a more durable surface that should provide a consistently firm playing platform throughout the season, the efforts Ackermann has put into developing Gloucester’s game plan – and indeed players – since arriving last summer will be further vindicated.
"It’s not a secret we want to play an attractive brand of rugby and that obviously includes the tight five, it includes that they must upskill themselves and have decent ball skills. We don't want to shy away from the set phases and be physical when we need to be, but we also want to make sure that everybody enjoys the game.
"I'm not a believer that it needs to be wingers who score the tries, a prop must have that ability, or the locks must have that ability to pass and put somebody through a hole, which means we must get those skills.
"We'll hopefully keep evolving the game and keep improving the individuals’ skills as well."
An explosive ball carrier, talented open field runner and deft ball player, Ackermann believes Kriel possesses the type of skill set he is trying to instil in his current player group.
“Yeah, he's a player that when at his best has a lot of potential, you know. He's got a lot of star qualities around his game, but it's a team effort. He looks at how the players around him play and he puts them in space too. That's what we need to strive for, to put those players that can put teammates into space into the game, to make sure we are playing 15-man rugby.”
The adjustments currently underway at Kingsholm under Ackermann’s charge extend further than what we see on the pitch or even the training paddock each week. As he did with Super Rugby side the Lions, Ackermann is currently employing the services of a specialist sports psychologist.
In South Africa, Jannie Putter - author of ‘Mentally Tough: Proven Keys to Success’ - was the man to help guide the Lions during their development to one of the most exciting sides in the league. In the Premiership, local Gloucester resident Dave Collins, who is also currently working with Premiership League side Chelsea and various Olympic athletes, is the man Ackermann believes will take his side to the next stage.
He explained, “We changed a lot recently, the pitch, the players, the badge and we wanted to see if we could get someone to challenge the players at that high level as well.
“As you say, back home Jannie Putter has been a guy that worked closely with me when I got him involved in the Lions. Sometimes, I believe that players need that one person they can go to and speak to on an individual basis. Someone they can share stuff they may not want to share with the whole group or the coaches. There are a lot of things in life that you can sometimes struggle with and you just need someone with that capability to help you through. So yeah, it's an area that hopefully, Dave can make a difference for us going forward.”
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