Kebble desperate to make up for lost time with Warriors

Prop was part of a southern hemisphere intake which struggled to make their mark during first season at the club

Old Keeble - Glasgow Warriors prop. Glasgow Warriors training session, Scotstoun Stadium, Glasgow Scotland, Monday 1st October 2018. ***Please credit: ©Fotosport/David Gibson***

GLASGOW WARRIORS signed six players from the southern hemisphere ahead of the start of the 2017-18 season and the fortunes of that group demonstrates just how hard it is for modern professionals to play back-to-back seasons on opposite sides of the world.

The two success stories were prop Siua Halanukonuka, who arrived from the Highlanders, and flanker Callum Gibbins, who arrived from the Hurricanes, and even they have had their fair share of tough times since landing in Scotland.

Halanukonuka managed 13 appearances in the PRO14 and was involved in four out of six of the team’s Champions Cup encounters, but he is yet to play this season and is not expected to return from a foot injury for at least a month.


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Gibbins, meanwhile, started last season like a runaway train, but then missed three months at the start of the calendar year with a hamstring injury, before returning for the rather disappointing climax to the campaign.

Interestingly, Warriors assistant coach Jason O’Halloran mused earlier this week that the Kiwi flanker’s hamstring problem may have been linked to the demands put on his body by jumping almost straight from the end of the Hurricanes season into the start of the Warriors campaign.

“It is tough,” said O’Halloran. “You look at someone like Callum Gibbins coming over last year straight from Super Rugby and he picked up an injury and was out for three months. It is tough for those guys because they basically end up playing for 18-20 months on the trot, and that can be a real struggle.”

The other four recruits from the south of the equator had an even harder time.

All Black cap Lelia Masaga announced his arrival from the Chiefs in spectacular style when he came off the bench for his debut during a pre-season outing against the Dragons and immediately launched a rampaging break-out from his own 22 which set up a length of the field score for Scott Cummings. But the winger managed only eight PRO14 appearances and none in Europe due to a combination of a calf problem before Christmas and a knee injury in the New Year.

Centre Huw Jones landed in Scotland just before the November Tests, straight off the back of Western Province’s Currie Cup success in South Africa, and struggled to reproduce his international form in the six starts and one appearance off the bench he managed at club level before his season was brought to a premature end by a facial injury.

Brandon Thomson, another recruit from the Stormers, has struggled to make an impression as a frontline contender for a jersey.

But prop Oli Kebble, the third ex-Stormer to join the ranks last season, undoubtedly suffered the toughest first season. He was side-lined with a foot then a knee injury, meaning that he managed only on two starts and seven bench appearances, and didn’t take part in any of the team’s six European outings nor their PRO14 play-off defeat to the Scarlets. We will never know whether the prop’s mighty 6ft 3inch and 19½ stone frame would have improved the team’s fortunes in those do-or-die encounters against some of the most powerful outfits in Europe last season.

Fighting fit and raring to go

The good news for the Warriors is that it looks like we are about to find out what the South African is really made of because, after a proper pre-season, the 26-year-old has hit the ground running, starting in four out of the team’s five matches so far. And he showed with his try scoring performance against the Dragons on Saturday night that he is well and truly over the concussion which kept him out of the team’s only defeat in the PRO14 to the Southern Kings the previous week.

He is clearly intent on making up for some lost time when the Champions Cup kicks-off with a mouth-watering clash against Saracens a week on Sunday.

“I think I was unlucky coming off Super Rugby and getting injured my second game then coming back, getting a run of form and then getting injured again before the [PRO14 play-off] semi-finals,” he reflects. “I’m happy with the way things have gone so far [this season], I think it’s good to get a full pre-season under the belt with the team and just a lot more time to gel with the players, so it’s been a lot easier this year.”

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It is, of course, lovely that Kebble is feeling comfortable at the Warriors, but he is acutely aware that such platitudes will sound pretty hollow unless they are backed up by what happens on the park.

There is a perception that the Warriors are a nice team to watch and a nice team to play against: give them too much freedom and they will cut you to ribbons – but build the pressure up-front and they are in trouble.

Kebble doesn’t agree with that point of view but he know there is only one way to put it to bed.

Point to prove

“We’ve worked hard on it in pre-season, it’s a team effort, it’s a pack effort,” he states. “We said at the start of pre-season we want to lay down a marker – we want to show that a Scottish pack can hold their ground and put a step forward in Europe. All the boys have put some hard work in and it’s starting to show. It will be interesting to see what happens over the coming weeks.

“We’ve put more of a focus on dominating upfront and believing in that. It is similar personnel to last year, so it is about empowering the pack a lot more. Our main focus is to dominate up-front.

“Any pack can [do that] if they believe they can. We’ve got some really world class forwards and if we just put emphasis on dominating up-front – working hard at it because it doesn’t come easy – then I think we’ve shown already what we can do.”

Kebble points to his team’s powerful performance when defeating Munster 25-10 at the start of September as an indicator of what they are capable of.

“Every day we try and re-affirm what our core values are as a pack and it was good to show it against Munster,” he says. “Traditionally Munster have had a really strong pack so to show that in front of our fans [at Scotstoun] was really special. But it isn’t about doing it just once, we’ve got to do it week-in and week-out to really build on that.”

Meanwhile, Jones’ performance against Dragons last week suggests that he is also beginning to find his groove at the club, Gibbins is revelling in the co-captaincy of the club, and Thomson made his first appearance of the season as a late replacement off the bench against the Dragons last week but doesn’t appear to be a serious contender for a squad place against Saracens.

Masaga had hoped to be involved this week against Zebre, in the team’s final PRO14 hit-out before Europe, but picked up a glute injury, which has almost certainly scuppered any outside chance he might have had of being involved in the Saracens game; and Halanukonuka is still battling that foot injury.


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About David Barnes 4004 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.