Gloucester Rugby: Contract talks begin to keep Kingsholm stars
THE ANNUAL battle to hold on to Kingsholm's top talent has started earlier than ever before.
Gloucester's board and management team have already launched their assault on retaining their frontline stars whose contracts will expire at the end of the coming season.
The Cherry and Whites have a hefty 24 first-team squad members out of contract at the end of the new campaign.
Freddie Burns, Billy Twelvetrees, Charlie Sharples, Sione Kalamafoni, Rob Cook, Akapusi Qera, James Simpson-Daniel, Matt Cox and Henry Trinder are just a selection of the coveted Kingsholm stars whose deals will expire this term.
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Existing contracts for a whole host of stellar talents and mainstays will run their course this season.
And that means in January it will be open season for rival clubs to make offers to those Gloucester favourites, if no new Kingsholm deals have been agreed.
Gloucester are naturally keen to avoid that situation, and tie up their top performers before rivals can start making formal offers to prise them away from Kingsholm.
So rugby director Nigel Davies and Gloucester's board have already kick-started the process of earmarking exactly where the squad budget for 2014/15 will go.
The Echo understands that Gloucester are keen to start making new contract offers as soon as possible.
And Kingsholm chiefs have certainly started this process well in advance of previous years.
Gloucester will want to retain the bulk of their out-of-contract personnel, with Rupert Harden, Ryan Mills, Lua Lokotui, Darren Dawidiuk, Shaun Knight, Tim Taylor and Tim Molenaar also on that list.
Antipodean stars Jimmy Cowan and Huia Edmonds are also among the nucleus of stars whose deals will expire, while veterans Andy Hazell, Will James and player/backs coach Mike Tindall swell those ranks still further.
New recruits Johnny Bentley and Dan George, and re-signed full-back Martyn Thomas complete the roster of out-of-contract Cherry and Whites.
Davies' late arrival as rugby director last summer meant he could not make the jump on contract discussions he would have liked.
The former Wales centre had a whole host of more pressing concerns to address after arriving from Llanelli Scarlets before he could turn attention to squad make-up and tinkering.
This time around, though, Kingsholm affairs are in far better order, allowing Davies, his coaching team and the Gloucester board to sink their teeth into the annual jigsaw puzzle of building the strongest possible squad within both budget and salary cap.
England's coming inside backs partnership of Burns and Twelvetrees will no doubt command serious attention from rivals, and not just among the Premiership rich boys either.
Former Championship men Sione Kalamafoni and Rob Cook have impressed to such an extent after just one season in the Premiership that there will no doubt be more than admiring glances there too.
Two years ago Fijian flanker Akapusi Qera admitted he rejected several big-money offers from France to stay on at Kingsholm.
And there is no doubt those same money-bags chairmen from across The Channel will be circling with intent again come the turn of the year.
Wing wizard James Simpson-Daniel was seriously tempted by a hefty offer from French Top 14 club Castres in 2011. The stealthy line-breaker chose Cherry and White over bank balances when signing a three-year deal.
Once again he could come under further French scrutiny, with his mercurial talents showing no signs of abating.
The greatest challenge of retaining all the top stars comes with players naturally, and rightly, commanding higher salaries as they rise through club and international ranks.
Gloucester were unable to hold on to the likes of Dave Attwood and Paul Doran-Jones under Bryan Redpath.
The squad, with Redpath's help it must be stressed, has moved in a different direction since.
Davies was clear on his arrival last summer that the squad he inherited needed little work at that point.
But the situation will certainly be different by the end of his second Kingsholm campaign.
The former management consultant has already made an impressive Cherry and Whites mark.
Balancing the books while retaining all the assets could prove Davies' biggest challenge yet.
OUT OF CONTRACT AT THE END OF 2013/14:
FRONT-ROW: Huia Edmonds, Rupert Harden, Darren Dawidiuk, Shaun Knight, Dan George.
LOCK: Lua Lokotui, Will James.
BACK-ROW: Sione Kalamafoni, Akapusi Qera, Matt Cox, Andy Hazell.
SCRUM-HALF: Jimmy Cowan.
FLY-HALF: Freddie Burns, Tim Taylor, Johnny Bentley.
WING: James Simpson-Daniel, Charlie Sharples.
CENTRE: Billy Twelvetrees, Henry Trinder, Tim Molenaar, Ryan Mills, Mike Tindall.
FULL-BACK: Rob Cook, Martyn Thomas.