Will Gloucester’s season hinge on Challenge Cup glory?

George Skivington is looking to lead Gloucester to a second trophy this season
©Martin Bennett/Gloucester Rugby

It was at the beginning of January when Gloucester made their decision.

The Cherry and Whites had suffered three successive Gallagher Premiership defeats either side of Christmas against Northampton Saints, Harlequins and Bath respectively.

A combined losing margin of just 15 points from those matches doesn’t seem too catastrophic but the wider picture forced Gloucester to shift their mindset for the rest of the season.

Their 17-10 defeat to Bath punctuated a nine-match losing streak in the Premiership and the choice was made by the club to put more emphasis on the cup competitions rather than their domestic duties.

“I think probably we realised, if we don’t change something or we don’t make a change in one competition, this could be a very long season,” says Gloucester forward Ruan Ackermann.

“We could’ve had a season where we look at each other and say; ‘We kind of, in a respectful way, wasted each other’s time’ in the sense of not competing at the highest level.”

With injuries - which haven’t helped Gloucester's cause over the last 16 months - impacting the strength of the squad, rather than trying to fight on all fronts, targeting trophies became the club’s sole objective.

Back-to-back successes in the Challenge Cup against Edinburgh and Castres saw Gloucester end the pool stages unbeaten before their selection to go for silverware over places in the Premiership immediately paid dividends.

The trophy cabinet doors at Kingsholm hadn’t been flung open since the Cherry and Whites lifted the Challenge Cup in 2015 but they dusted away the cobwebs after securing the Premiership Rugby Cup back in March.

Now Gloucester were ready to board the Challenge Cup train again. Victories over Castres in the Round of 16 and Ospreys in the quarter-finals set up a last-four tie against Benetton.

And their red-hot form in Europe continued meaning George Skivington's men have now reached their intended destination - a date with the Sharks in Friday night’s Challenge Cup final at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

“You dream of playing in these sorts of cup finals throughout your whole career and to be faced with one on Friday is an unbelievably exciting challenge,” Gloucester’s Freddie Clarke says.

“Throughout the season and since we got to the last 16, you have always had sort of one eye on the final. Now we can’t wait till Friday.”

Reaching the final of the Challenge Cup isn’t alien to Clarke or to Gloucester. The 31-year-old was part of the squad that lost consecutive finals in 2017 and 2018 against Stade Français and Cardiff.

But perhaps the club’s eagerness to taste glory in their fifth finale in this competition is greater than it has previously been.

While Director of Rugby Skivington has reiterated that the Premiership has been anything but an unwanted distraction this term, Gloucester’s shocking 90-0 defeat against Northampton Saints three weeks ago meant heaps of scrutiny landed at their door.

A much-changed Cherry and Whites side were picked off by the Premiership league leaders. The club’s approach was under the microscope with a second from bottom finish already confirmed.

“I mean, naturally, you celebrate your wins but your losses, we need to - and you do - get closer as a group,” Clarke says. “We’ve had some really tough periods this season. There is no hiding from that.”

“It can be framed however you like,” Skivington adds. “From my point of view, at the beginning of the season, you want to play in finals. We wanted to be more competitive in the Prem. We weren’t, we changed tack but ultimately we now get to play in a final so that is why rugby players do what they do and we have got a really exciting game at the end of the week.

“It is one of those where we are going to do everything we can. The objective is to bring more silverware to Gloucester and that obviously comes with a lot of emotion and a bit of pressure and all the rest of it.

“You get to a final and then you have just got to throw everything at it. We put our eggs in the basket of going for these two cups, which is why it makes it a big week for us.”

Whether Skivington and Gloucester admit it or not, there is a strong sense that any reflection of their season will be shaped by the outcome of Friday night.

While they, quite rightly, are once again fully immersed in their European adventure, Clarke also feels success in North London would be a ‘huge lift for the boys’ going into the 2024-25 Premiership campaign.

And next season is something his boss also has an eye on.

“I think [keeping players fit and having strength in depth] that has definitely been a big factor for us [struggling in the Premiership],” Skivington says.

“We have recruited next season [with the likes of Christian Wade, Gareth Anscombe and Tomos Williams all moving to Kingsholm] to make sure we have got strength in depth in key areas.

“There are lots of things I can change and affect as well. I have got a good period without the players being in coming up. That will just allow me to rip it all apart and do some digging with the other coaches and be better than this year.

“I don’t think we’re a million miles away or anything like that. There has been some really good stuff we have done this year that can be easily forgotten. It hasn’t necessarily transferred into the Premiership. There have been moments but we have got to find more consistency next year.”

Momentum and ‘consistency’ might have been hard to come by for Gloucester in the Premiership but in the Challenge Cup, they have won all seven of their matches.

That theme also runs parallel with Friday's opponents, the Sharks. The South African outfit sit 13th in the United Rugby Championship but are unbeaten in the Challenge Cup.

The likes of World Cup winners Eben Etzebeth, Vincent Koch, Ox Nché and Makazole Mapimpi are all in the Sharks' arsenal, with Gloucester’s Ackermann looking forward to taking on some familiar faces.

“I am good friends with some of them so we kind of made jokes that if we both kept winning, we were going see each other eventually in the final and as it got closer, those jokes started to get a little bit less,” says the South African.

“We play a little bit of COD [Call of Duty] together, PlayStation and stuff. Some of the boys like Vincent Koch, Francois Venter, one or two of the other boys. I know Vincent Koch is the sort of guy that when he goes on the URC tours, he takes his gaming laptop with him!

“You play [rugby] on a Saturday and then you play a bit of COD on the Sunday, but we haven’t played COD in the last week or two together so you know that the final is coming.”

The Sharks - who beat Clermont 32-31 in the semi-finals - are set to be without captain Lukhanyo Am who will miss the final through a reported rib and shoulder issue.

Nevertheless, Ackermann acknowledges the talent running through Neil Powell’s side: “They have got some big names, players that have won World Cups so from an experience point of view, they have kind of been there and done that sort of situation but obviously this Europe.

"This is something new for them even though they have got big players in there but in general, it is a massive focus on us because as a club, it is a big opportunity to try and win two finals.”

For Clarke, who has scored two superb tries in this year’s European campaign [v Castres in the pool stages and in the semi-final v Benetton] Friday’s final - in his words - might not be season-defining but getting over the line would go an extremely long way to justifying the club's decision back in January.

“On a team level, I think it will be huge,” Clarke says. “2015, we won it [19-13 v Edinburgh] and we have been to two finals and lost both. I was sort of part of those last two finals and there is nothing worse than seeing another team lift the cup.

“Especially this group, winning the Prem Cup this year is obviously massive but this is another step up this European competition. It is not a season-defining game but it is pretty close to it.”