After a slow start, including an eye-opening defeat at Bath in his first match in the Guinness Premiership, Worcester Warriors director of rugby Mike Ruddock tells Brian Dick of his pride at how far the Sixways side have come and how missing out on Heineken Cup qualification may not have been a bad thing.
Such talk would have been inconceivable at the start of the season as Warriors took until January to register their first league win and were humiliated 47-16 by the Ospreys – live on national television.
A summit meeting highlighted the way forward and with the transfusion of young blood and three All Blacks, performances – if not results, picked up.
Things improved dramatically after top referee Wayne Barnes dropped into Sixways to blow the whistle on Warriors’ poor discipline and the team used a wet, windy night in Stockport and the Try of the Season as a launchpad for continental success.
From humble beginnings to an heroic end... nearly
“The start of the season was quite tough. We missed out on some results by a few points like Saracens at home when we seemed to have the game won but we gave it away with an interception and a loose kick for which we didn’t organise our chase the way we wanted to. That was typical of what we were doing early on.
“We battled on even though confidence dipped at times. We persevered with the style of rugby we wanted to come through and eventually it did.
“Out of the disappointment of losing the European Challenge Cup final, the try we scored if anything typified what we are trying to do. It showed the way we are trying to get the ball into space and get into scoring positions.
“We made inroads up front and then it was fitting that it came out wide for Thinus Delport to score in his last game for the club.
“Overall we could not have asked any more from the players except for a bit more accuracy at times. We are now becoming recognised as respected figures in the Guinness Premiership. What we have got to do is try and learn the lessons from that bad start so that the players know what is expected from them from day one.”
The Chairman’s Brief
“From the start Cecil [Duckworth] was hoping – as we all were – to get into the top half of the table. But looking at this league and how tough it is with the squad we started out with, it would not have been a realistic goal.
“Without looking for excuses, we recognise we under-performed in the first half of the season, we were in transition. We feel we now have a squad that is capable of battling to that higher level.
“If you can get confidence going early on you can achieve anything. I have alluded many times to the year Wales won the Grand Slam when we scraped past England 11-9 in the first match and went on from there. It really is a game of confidence and getting the last two inches right.
“I have been in the game a long time. I would be lying if I didn’t say I was concerned we weren’t getting out of the losing run but I always felt we would win games and show the style we have been developing because I knew how hard we had been working.
“Getting some better quality players in the second half of the season really invigorated us, especially as they had more experience of playing that way. Suddenly we had a bit of confidence and our game went to the next level.”
High hopes come crashing down - beaten by Bath on opening day
“That was the moment I realised it was going to be harder than I expected. It was a major disappointment because we had done so well in our pre-season friendly against London Irish when we moved the ball superbly.
“Suddenly we were disjointed, lacked cohesion and didn’t seem to know what we were doing. Having said that when the game seemed to be all over we started to fight back and could have been right back in it.
“We dropped the ball under the posts and could have been on level terms. We could even have got a loss bonus at the death had Thinus gone for the corner.
“We thought ‘Hang on a minute. Some of this stuff is coming out’ but we had to try and put it together for 80 minutes.
“Clive [Griffiths] and I had been there before so we knew to persevere. We had built a brand new team with the Dragons where there had been a lot of political in-fighting over whether it was Newport or Ebbw Vale.
“We had to let a lot of players go because our budget was smaller than the Newport club’s had been and we lacked cohesion and lost the first three or four games. Then we beat the Ospreys and went on to finish third in the league.
“Having been there before we knew we didn’t need to panic, we knew it would take time to go from one end of the spectrum having been told never to off-load or take chances, to taking a few risks. But we didn’t expect it to take as long as it took.”
Trial by television
“The Ospreys game was the lowest moment. It was live on TV, Clive and I are both proud Welshman and Welsh team came up and battered us. We didn’t play well at all.
“We were falling off tackles and I felt we needed to look at things because I have seen it in the past and knew there is usually an underlying reason behind it. We couldn’t carry on that way.
“We got bashed up and while I wouldn’t call it a crisis meeting, we had to examine the environment very closely. As coaches we were intent on playing a certain way and the players had said they wanted to go on that journey with us.
“But results and performances indicated there was not the buy-in we wanted so on the Monday after that result we talked about our preparation, game plan and all round approach.
“We had an open floor and held a vote on it. It literally was that open. We had to see if we needed to move away from that and cut our cloth according to what we had.
“If 90 per cent had said we don’t believe in it I would have had no choice because there would have been no point. We might have had to strengthen our team with other players and go for it the year after.
“Thankfully that wasn’t the case. To a man they said ‘Let’s go for it.’ From then we knew we were all in harmony.
“It was important we felt we had that buy-in and to a man they said they wanted to press on. That was exactly what we required to stay true to what we wanted to do. We also found that traditionally the club has not taken the EDF very seriously and sub-consciously people thought it wasn’t as important as a Guinness Premiership game and were coming off the gas pedal. That’s why we tried to perform well in the Challenge Cup.
Brain storming and Barnes-storming
“We improved after the shambles of the Ospreys and improved significantly but were still missing out by one score and a lot of that was down to us being our own worse enemies through penalties and sin-binnings.
“It would have been easy to point our fingers at the referees and bury our heads in the sand by saying it was everybody else’s fault but we had to look at ourselves. We were a team that was constantly putting ourselves under pressure through bad behaviours and poor decisions around the tackle area.
“At Harlequins away in February we had a couple of boys in the bin and then got bashed up in the last 20 minutes. After that Wayne Barnes (pictured below) came down to help us examine that more closely.
“The players had the opportunity to look at each penalty and explain what they were thinking at the time or why they acted they way they did. We then had the chance for Wayne to say what the referee was thinking.
“It wasn’t a case of the players not knowing the laws but understanding how referees interpret them. The next game was Sale away. Our penalty count dropped and we won the game because of that.”
At last Worcester hit the heights
“The Sale game [which Worcester won 22-15] was a great day for us. After that game I knew we were on track. There was no doubt we were under the cosh, Cecil had been very patient and there was no real blame culture, but for so long it wasn’t coming right.
“Cecil said in the middle of our losing streak that we would be here for the long haul so we never felt as though we were going to lose our jobs. To have that support was fantastic but we were in a relegation battle and we felt the pressure from the fans because they were having a terrible time. But if you start talking about not making mistakes or not doing something because of the risks, you will find players and coaches go into their shells. Even in the darkest hours you have got to maintain your confidence and positive nature.
“If you just highlight the negatives all the time the confidence gets lower. You have to learn to deal with mistakes in a different way so that people believe they are still improving. I am not saying it in hindsight but we were always ultra-confident we would get the wins and start playing the rugby we wanted to.
“To get that win at Sale the feeling of pressure coming off everyone was tangible. I knew we would click but I didn’t think it would come up at Sale that Friday night but there were a couple of piece of magic.
“If we had said the players ‘Don’t run in the 22 because you will put yourselves under pressure’ and gone into our shells, we would not have scored that great try which won the game.
“The fact we kept things positive helped. Shane Drahm made a break and everyone reacted to that. We created a shape in our attacking line we had worked on and Matt Powell kicked across, Marcel tapped it down and Kai Horstmann was there to get the ball. That was pleasing because we had been trying to promote that all season.”
Challenge Cup odyssey
“We won’t let memories of the final spoil our run in the Challenge Cup. What we will remember was the huge support there is for this club and the massive potential it has because of that.
“The desire from everyone involved is to get to finals and play in big games more often because we demonstrated as a club and with our fan-base, we have something to bring to the table in those big matches – on and off the field.
“When we started we were in the middle of a bad run in the league, didn’t perform in the EDF but set targets to improve as a team in this competition.
“We ended the pool stages as No 1 seeds and that gave us confidence and a good opportunity to get to the final with a home quarter and home semi. That gave us a lot more consistency.
“You could argue some of the teams weren’t at the highest level compared to the Guinness Premiership and I’ll accept that but for where we were, it was the right thing at the right time. We could build our game, get momentum and confidence and improve our season overall and make a fist of getting through to the final.”
Heineken Cup half empty?
“Am I disappointed with not getting there? Yes and no. It would have been great and I think the squad we have put together could have done OK.
“From the club’s perspective the prospect of bringing Toulouse or Munster here would be fantastic. You saw at the final how magnificent an occasion it would have been. That is something we want to chase and achieve.
“But the other side is if we are honest we are still bedding in new combinations. We have a new No 10 and a couple of other players coming into the squad like Hal Luscombe and Chris Latham and we have some more youngsters we want to look at like Matt Cox and Graham Kitchener.
“We are probably another year or so away from having a squad with the experience and mileage on the clock to really challenge in Europe on a consistent basis while still being competitive in the Premiership.
“What you don’t want to do is qualify for the Heineken Cup and find it knocks you back in the league. A couple of teams have suffered that way in the past.”
Things can only get better
“If you say we didn’t win a league game until the end of January but we finished higher up in the league that we did the year before, that shows how much is possible if we can get a good start next season.
“As a coaching group a lot of the hard yards in terms of shaping our ethos and culture have been achieved. We find that quite gratifying. We went to the Premiership awards the other night and won Try of the Season.
“That sent a message out loud and clear that Worcester are now a team that is dangerous and if you give them time and space they will score against you.
“By the end of the season we were a very aggressive defensive team with a potent attack. If we can start off like that next season then we will have a good one.”