Peter Butler column: International calls have left our squad a bit thin
IT SEEMS that Gloucester's relative success could come back to bite them at this crucial stage of the season.
In recent years, the international periods – whether it be in November or during the Six Nations – have seen opponents weakened to the advantage of the Cherry and Whites.
As a result Gloucester fans have grown used to surges up the league table after Christmas and decent runs in the LV= Cup, a competition predominantly played at the same time as international matches.
But this season things are a little different.
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Gloucester are well represented in both England squads with some of the players who have been key to a good season so far called up to represent their country.
It leaves things a bit thin on the ground at Kingsholm, and Nigel Davies will need some of his fringe players to step up to the task with some of the more established names missing.
This was illustrated in the game against Northampton, when the hosts were able to field a far stronger line-up due to arguably having a deeper squad than the Cherry and Whites, and also not having as many away with England as they have done in recent years.
Of course, with Gloucester through in the European Challenge Cup, and battling for a top four or top six place in the Premiership, it's probably for the best that they don't now have to fight on three fronts, with defeat at Franklin's Gardens putting them out of the LV= Cup before the final game against Bath.
I'm not sure it is going to happen, but I would certainly like to see Davies moving to deepen the Gloucester squad ahead of next season.
I don't expect to see much movement, but it is well documented Gloucester are looking extremely light in the second row department at the moment, following the departure of Jim Hamilton and the forced retirement of Alex Brown.
Fly-half is another area where back-up is needed to Freddie Burns, although I was impressed by Ryan Mills against Saints and appreciate Burns' younger brother Billy is coming through.
I am a fan of Tim Taylor as a third option in the number ten shirt, but I think he lacks the cutting edge to really challenge Burns senior for the shirt.
Davies must find the right balance between waiting for youngsters to come through and recruiting players from outside, which is never an easy thing to judge.
HAZELL HAS SHOWN HIS MARAUDING DAYS ARE FAR FROM OVER
ANDY Hazell played like a man who was just about ready to return to action following his lengthy ban.
It was fantastic to see him marauding about the field again like only he can, and putting in a solid 80 minute shift even if it was in defeat against Northampton.
Nigel Davies will be delighted to have another option in the back row – and an out and out openside at that – to give his all for the Cherry and Whites for the rest of the season.
Hazell’s contract is up at the end of the year, but you can’t see him going anywhere.
If he’s ready to keep playing, which he says he is, then Gloucester must offer the prodigal son a new deal.
The game has changed such a lot since Hazell first started with the Cherry and Whites, but he has adapted and kept his fitness levels sky high.
His style of play has gone in an out of vogue several times but you can always guarantee he will give nothing less than 100 per cent when he crosses that whitewash.
IT IS NEVER A DEAD RUBBER WHEN OLD RIVALS DO BATTLE
DEFEAT against Northampton leaves Gloucester with nothing to play for against Bath this weekend in terms of qualifying for the LV= Cup semi-finals.
But you can bet there will be a few players trying to make their case for inclusion for the Premiership game against Northampton next weekend.
Add to that the obvious spice of a Gloucester against Bath clash, and you can still expect a decent game between the two West Country neighbours.
The Cherry and Whites face two tough away games on the trot – against Northampton and a resurgent Wasps – after this weekend.
The games don’t get any easier and it is crucial to try to build momentum at this stage of the season.
Wins in any competition help with that, and with a trip to Bath in the league coming up in a month there is also the chance to put down a marker.
Gloucester have had the edge in the rivalry in recent seasons, so Bath will be wanting to do something about that and seem to be in a constant battle at the moment to justify the money currently being spent at the club.