The fixture list certainly wasn't kind to Worcester Warriors, who opened their season on Sunday with a visit to Welford Road, the home of Leicester Tigers, the Champions.
That was as tough as it gets for any team, not to mention one who finished one place off the bottom last year, has a new coaching team, a new captain and an almost completely overhauled playing staff.
Now that is what you call a fresh start.
Dean Ryan, Director of Rugby - turned pundit - turned Director of Rugby is the new man at the helm, however, and has spent the summer recruiting a mix of seasoned and unproven talent as he looks to put together a squad that can compete in English rugby’s top tier.
He is charged with saving the club from the relegation for which they are so widely tipped, and in the long term, elevating them from the position of custodians of the Premiership’s trap-door that they have occupied for the last two years.
Appointed in April, Ryan was already set to lose a good number of last year’s first team as fly-half Andy Goode and prop Matt Mullan headed for Wasps and in demand open-side, Matt Kvesic, widely tipped as England’s finest fetcher, traded Sixways for West Country life with Gloucester. The club also lost the services of internationals Shaun Perry and Nikki Walker, amongst others.
Ryan’s first task was putting together a coaching team capable of getting the best out of the players at his disposal, whoever those players happened to be and however gifted they were. In came Kiwi-come-Welshman Shane Howarth as backs coach, Simon Cross as defence coach. Also recruited recently retired Sixways favourite Ceri Jones and Leicester and Bath stalwart Sam Vesty.
Then came the tough part, putting together and subsequently coaching a playing squad with the armoury to make headway in the world’s most competitive league (51 per cent of games last season ended with a winning margin of less than seven). Fine margins can define a campaign for the clubs set to scrap it out in the Aviva Premiership’s lower half.
There are 13 new faces at the club, but many of these deals had been done before Ryan took over. The picks of this bunch are Argentine fly-half Ignacio Mieres and Cameron Goodhue, who joined from Auckland Blues. Ryan has supplemented these signings with the addition of Welsh flanker Jonathan Thomas, who he chose as his captain for the season.
“Dean’s created an extremely good environment and has a great team around him,” Thomas told GiveMeSport, bristling with optimism, when we met at the Aviva Premiership launch day last week.
“We’ve had an extremely tough pre-season but hopefully we’ll reap the benefits of that work as the season goes on because the boys have bonded so well. Obviously there’s new game plans to contend with and a lot to take in but we’ve worked seriously hard.”
Of Ryan, who he’d never worked with before, Thomas is overwhelmingly positive and believes that his own experience puts him in a strong position to pass judgement:
“I’ve been around enough groups of players and coaches to know the difference between a good environment and a bad environment. The one Dean has created is exceptional - he works us hard and we are all responding well to that.”
Ryan also seemed satisfied with how the grueling pre-season campaign had gone. Those who remember his time with Gloucester and as Scotland’s forwards coach last year will know him as guarded, grounded and not one to get carried away. The same Dean Ryan is on show here: brutally honest, hard working and immensely calm.
“The players have been really receptive to the ideas that we have brought to the table. I think one of the big priorities was to ensure that the club was well coached over the next 12 months and I’m very confident that we’re doing that," he told us.
“Look, I think we recognise that it’s not going to be easy. We don’t have the strongest squad in the league so we’re going have to fight pretty hard to hold our own but when you’ve got good people around, as we do, life is that little bit easier.
“But we’re at the stage where we are just looking forward to it now and are desperate to get the season moving."
There also seems to be little doubt in his mind that he has the right man leading his team out this season, so enthusiastic is his praise of Thomas.
“May and June’s not the best time of year for recruitment but I was delighted that there was an opportunity so late in the season to bring in a guy of Jon’s quality. I jumped at the chance based purely on playing ability and I’ve been delighted with the person I’ve got as well. The captaincy has come naturally to him and he fits in well with the group and we all respond well around him so it was an easy decision.”
Whilst Worcester fell to defeat in their opening fixture against Leicester, there were certainly positives to take from the 32-15 reverse. Ryan wasn't expecting much from the trip to the Midlands, and if anything was happy to get the clash out of the way early.
“There’s always a bit of nerves because you’ve waited so long and it starts for real now. It’s going to be seriously tough but why not start there? You’ve got to start somewhere haven’t you? For me it doesn’t get any better than away at Leicester,” he said ahead of the match.
The Warriors, who are looking to end a run of five straight defeats at the end of last year, handed debuts to five players (including Thomas), while Leicester were able to leave players of the quality of Ben Youngs and Manu Tuilagi out of the side without severely weakening their star-studded starting XV.
New captain Toby Flood, who was cautious about the clash with Worcester when also speaking to GMS at Twickenham last week, misses the game due to concussion.
The five debutants represent quite how new-look this Worcester team is and Thomas is the embodiment of this fresh approach. The only way is up in his eyes:
“Some guys have moved on but we’ve moved on from that too. I’m new to the club so don’t really know what’s been before. All I can really speak about is the present. I didn’t know too much about the club when I arrived but I think we have a decent squad and a very good set of coaches who are up for the gfight so we’re moving upwards.”
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