After a long and tough first season back in the Aviva Premiership for the Warriors, the team has had a major re-shuffle. Looking passionately ahead to the new year, Head Coach, Richard Hill, has outlined his attacking intent and endeavours to make Worcester an offensive danger as well as maintaining their defensive prowess!
Their strong finish last year, and good home form came from the basis of a vigorous, aggressive defence, backed by former British & Irish Lions Coach, Phil Larder. Worcester’s defensive showings, in some cases, were something to be admired. With big-hitter, Dale Rasmussen at Inside Centre and the likes of Sam Betty, Jake Abbott and Matt Kvesic in the Back-Row, tackling wasn’t much of an issue. At times it was heart-in-the-mouth stuff, with some narrow losses at home, which looked to be guaranteed victories. However on other occasions, Worcester came through victorious with superb defensive displays.
One man that shone for me in particular last season, was Outside Centre, Alex Grove. Phil Larder’s main man, and a skilled defensive technician, Grove repeatedly kept the opposition from crossing the Whitewash. At only 24, it seems that he’s been around for a while, and is therefore an experienced, knowledgeable asset to the squad on, and off the pitch.
Having played three games for Scotland and with still a bright future ahead of him, Grove is a big hit at Sixways and will hopefully help lead the club to future successes.
I caught up with Alex at the Indoor Training Centre at Sixways to get a bit of background into his Rugby career, a bit of gossip about the team, and his view on recent issues within the game.
(Not direct quotes)
Q. Growing up, who was your sporting idol and did you have much influence from your family?
AG. Well, my granddad would be one of them, ‘Ron Wylie’, who played football for some of the Midland’s club’s and as a result I’m probably an Aston Villa fan.
Q. Was Professional Rugby your main career choice?
AG. Well at school I did a lot of different sports, a lot of swimming, football, I only ever thought that rugby would be the one I focused on.
Q. Which school did you attend?
AG. Rugby School. So you had it drilled into you as it was the home of the game.
Q. How did you enter the set up at the Warriors?
AG. Last year at school, in the 2nd term they had an agreement that I went and played for Stourbridge on a Saturday, and they’ve always had a bit of a link with Worcester. Worcester was always my local club, coming from Solihull.
Q. What have been the best and worst moments of your career so far?
AG. Initially being selected for Scotland, was a major high, but then two weeks later when we beat Australia in 2009, that was my career highlight so far. On a low, easy to say relegation, but if you look at Newcastle now, it will probably benefit them. Initially it’s a low at the time, however after a couple of weeks you can see it’s probably what the club needed. I would say some of the games at home last season. The Quins game, the Chiefs game, where we were 12 points ahead with a minute and a half left and they managed to score twice.
Q. What about the Kitchener moment, dropping the ball in the act of scoring against Bedford?
AG. We don’t talk about that! So probably some of the narrow losses last year.
Q. How’s Pre-Season been going, ready for the upcoming year?
AG. Because I went on tour, I actually started back on Wednesday 2nd July. The guys had 3 weeks of training then the Monday and Tuesday off. I then started back on the Wednesday.
They’re long days, heavy weight sessions of which we have four a week along with speed work, power work etc. With the new coaches like Mathieu, Redman and Phil Vickery we’ve tried some different things. Phil Larder hasn’t even come back from sunning himself in Marbella yet! They all want to bring a lot to the table so a lot of time is spent on the training paddock this time of the season. The days are really long and the boys are quite quiet and tired, so go home and sleep and then come back, and it’s another struggle! We’ve got a 3 week period now where we work hard, and then we’ve got pre-season games, firstly against Cardiff on the 11th. It’s always like that, always a heavy slog. This is where you get ready for the season, playing in the games you’re going to be getting knocks;
it’s then hard to make gains in strength and speed. Although, if we put the hard work in now, you’ll be able to see the results at a later date.
Q. What do you think of Worcester’s superb set up behind the scenes, with the likes of Hill, Larder, Redman,
Vickery, Rourre and now with the addition of Hewitt and Hull?
AG. I see it as a lot of knowledgeable people that have come into an already experienced environment. Phil Larder was outstanding last year! Defence was our focus and making sure we stayed in the Premiership on our first year back , then I think Hilly’s now realised we need to have more of a balanced game. To adjust the attack he’s brought in the Frenchman, Mathieu, and he’s only been with us one week, and he’s already introduced quite a few key things, like; keeping the ball alive, exploiting space, all the basics really, but just hammering those home. From a different point of view, with the forwards, you’ve got a British Lion in Phil Vickery and a Level 5 coach, the hugely experienced Nigel Redman, so I think everything is in place as long as we can tap into the coach’s
experience and therefore move on.
Q. Where do you see the Warriors in the next couple of years, Heineken Cup?
AG. Obviously, every player wants to play in the Heineken Cup, it’s the best competition, but, I think if it happened too soon it would have more of a detrimental effect on us. We have that as a target, but no other targets have been set yet anyway, in regards to where we want to finish this year. Do we want to get into the Heineken Cup? Obviously we do, but we want to do as well as we can when we get there and I think that a realistic target is maybe 3 years until we reach it. I think it’s unfair to assume that these guys are going to come in and change everything instantly.
Q. Who’s looked like they’ve had one too many Ice Creams over the holiday?
AG. Probably Andy Goode. He’s always got a sun tan. Loves the ‘Corona’.
Q. And the worst haircut, apparently?
AG. Yeah, but that’s all part of his character. I think he likes it; it’s all part of the attention.
Q. Do all the lads get given nicknames at the club? I keep noticing on Twitter that Matt Kvesic’s is Jam roll and yours is Keith?!
AG. It’s one of those things if you say ‘don’t call me this’, then, that’s what you’re going to get called. I’ve had to put up with Keith for a few years now. That was Kai Horstmann’s fault. Keith, Keith you’ve got ‘s***’ teeth.
Q. Who are the ‘Jokers’ of the team?
AG. Shaun Perry’s always up there. Craig Gillies always has something to do with a prank that’s going on. He generally delegates other people to do the prank for him, so he won’t get the wrap for it. So he’s really the brains behind the operation. I think the obvious one is Neil Best.
Q. How are the new lads settling in?
AG. Quite well. We’ve only been here a week as I said. Dean Schofield’s now here, Paul Hodgson. Everyone except for David Lemi, he was obviously in the Pacific Nations Cup, and then played against Scotland, so I think he’s having a couple more weeks off.
Q. As part of the Scottish team, what’s your view on the SRU four year plan?
AG. Well, I think it’s great to have goals, otherwise you don’t know whether you’ve been successful or not. Right now, I can’t see anyone getting close to the New Zealanders; I just can’t see a weakness in their game. South Africa is probably the second best, but they’d probably have 20 points put on them at the moment. I think Scottish rugby has come on, obviously the momentum has built quite quickly after a couple of wins and having won over the summer is fantastic. Scott Johnson who has recently come in has changed the attack and will be, or is hopefully doing a similar thing that Mathieu is for Worcester, stripping it back, hammering home the basics and hopefully bringing a more critical edge to the Scottish backs. Really though, everyone talks about the Six Nations. Recently, we’ve done well in the Autumn Tests and Summer Tours but we’ve let ourselves down in the Six Nations. This Summer Tour we could of quite easily lost those three games. Not actually playing, but being able to watch them, the Australia game we won with the last kick of the game. The Fiji game we were winning by 5 points and it was a try saving tackle by Stuart Hogg, we turned over then we scored, so that game hanged in the balance. Then there
was a try by Rob Harley in the last-minute against Samoa to win the game and everyone looks at it and says, brilliant, that’s 3 from 3 which is great and that will gives us momentum going into the Autumn Tests, but that was a similar scenario to the Six Nations. All the games were close; the England game, Wales
game… what was 5 losses could’ve been 3 or 4 wins. That’ll be the main test I think in terms of where Scotland are going, the Six Nations.
Q. There’s been continuous debate over promotion/relegation, what do you think about the whole London Welsh embargo?
AG. Whether they like it or not, there are 8 teams in the Play-off system, which I don’t agree with, but they understood that if they finished top of their pool, won the semi home and away, the final home and away, then ultimately you’re the winner. They’ve done that so they should get promoted. One thing that held them back, I believe, was that by the 31st of March they didn’t have everything in place, so that was the only thing halting their progress in the recent court case with the RFU. There are people that have put a lot of money in and supporters have been there since the days when the team were successful, it’s the people like that that deserve to experience Premiership rugby. It’s a shame for the Cornish Pirates with the issues concerning the Stadium. It would of been nice to have another team from the South-West, because they’re passionate about their rugby down there. In regards to London Welsh though, it’s a new team, exciting and ‘I don’t wish them all the best!’
Q. There’s been lots of change at Bath, Sale, Gloucester and other clubs, who do you think will offer the toughest challenge this season?
AG. I’ve got to say Leicester because again, similar to the New Zealanders, it’s hard to pick a weakness in their setup. The strength in depth across their team is great; they’ve got 2 players in every position that are international quality. Even when the Six Nations is on and they lose the likes of Ben Youngs, Toby Flood and Dan Cole, you think oh great we can beat this team now all there internationals are away, but no, they’ve still got good players backing up those positions. We let ourselves down last year, away, but hopefully this year we can have a better couple of games against them.
Q. What’s it going to be like lining up against your old teammate, Miles Benjamin?
AG. Well, unfortunately I’m going to have to do it again. The first time I played against him was against the Saxons earlier this year when he came off the bench. It wasn’t until I had to line up against him in the last 10 minutes, until I realised how big he was! Playing alongside him every week, you just think I’ll give the ball to Miles and let him run, but as you see him running to towards you, you notice the size of the guy. I think for him it’s a great move, he’ll probably be under the eye of the England selectors a bit more, whether it’s right or not and that’s kind of how it works. Playing in a winning side you are more likely to get picked and Leicester win more times than they lose, for sure. Miles is a good mate so I’m probably a little biased, but I hope soon he’ll get his cap, and do well.
Q. Phil Larder mentioned that you’re one of Worcester’s best defensive assets. What makes you so outstanding defensively?
AG. I paid him to say that! No, not really. It takes a lot more than one person to do well. Dale Rasmussen, who’s just left, playing alongside him, made my job as a 13 a lot easier. Having someone with his experience and knowledge of the defensive system on my inside, being able to mop up anything, being such a big tackler, made my job a lot easier. Playing together so much we were able to build a good relationship on the field, I think that showed quite a bit last year.
Q. What do you plan to do after your career in rugby?
AG. The short answer is I’ve got no idea what I’ll be doing yet. The property idea is something I’m interested in, whether I’ll be involved with rugby, you never know. I’m 24 so as you said time’s on my side, touch wood!
It certainly seems hopeful for next season and looks like for the Sixways faithful, success is now within reach. With the introduction of Phil Vickery, Nigel Redman and Mathieu Rourre, the backroom set-up is promising; this hopefully can be mirrored on the turf.
With 9 new signings, including the likes of: Jon Clarke, Paul Hodgson, Nikki Walker and Josh Matavesi, the attacking capability of the team looks to have certainly increased.
With the interesting and varied insight that Alex gave into Rugby at Worcester, we can only look forward to the new club season and Autumn Internationals. Let’s hope Alex can make further inroads in a Scotland Jersey and stamp his defensive authority alongside his attacking capability, on the pitch.
Special Mention: Many thanks to Alex Grove for his time and for an intriguing interview.