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Appointment of new defence coach can't come quick enough for Bath

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

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How times change. It was just over six years ago, in November 2015 to be precise, when Leo Cullen skulked into an arctic-cold marquee on the cricket pitch at the back of The Rec to try and explain a sec0nd successive Champions Cup defeat for Leinster at the hands of Premiership opposition. Seventy-three months later, it was his Bath counterpart Stuart Hooper who was consigned to the skulking, the Premiership side suffering a depressing Dublin dusting in which they had leaked the try bonus point by the 25th minute and went on to concede seven tries in a 45-20 hammering.  

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It made for painful viewing from the Aviva Stadium upper deck, a spectacle very different from what had transpired at The Rec when Cullen was the rookie boss earning his stripes on the European circuit. Just six days previously that year, his team had been sorely stung by Wasps and now Bath, that year’s Premiership finalists, had joined in the fun, the Mike Ford-coached side taking advantage of an Irish scrum that repeatedly creaked. 

Cullen, though, was defiantly a quick learner, shaking off his rookie coach status by placing his faith in a raft of youngsters some months later when the teams met again in Dublin. Leinster won that day and it was the first impressive step forward in the remoulding of a giant that had temporarily lost its way. 

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Bath player ratings vs Leinster | Champions Cup
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Bath player ratings vs Leinster | Champions Cup

While Leinster now continue to very much have a definite purpose under Cullen, it remains rather difficult to make out what the long-term plan is at their English rivals. Bath have oodles of cash, just seemingly not the nous to spend it properly, especially under Hooper.

With the Todd Blackadder era fizzling out post-Ford, Bruce Craig turned to Hooper in 2019. He was a comparable Cullen-like figure in the sense there here was a proud ex-second row who had played for his local club and was now taking his first big step as a rookie boss. There, though, ends the comparison.

It was November 2019 when Hooper had outlined his grand vision for Bath, pitching up at the Champions Cup launch in Cardiff and telling RugbyPass what it meant for someone who as a kid remembered watching his team from a spot above the River Avon, looking on over the walls into The Rec. “The biggest crux of the role is it’s about people so we have got 63 young players and 32 staff and to lead all of those people, the complexities of the relationships, the dynamics, the feelings… and that is just the work. Then you have got outside of work, all the emotions of having all these people, it is a people business.”

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One that sadly isn’t going all that well for the still-rookie boss whose future at the club must now be up for grave discussion. Bath started this season with very high hopes, bringing in a new attack coach and enthusing about how they were going to give their star backs every incentive to thrive. However, with no specialist defence coach as part of that ambitious management ticket, Bath have instead been dreadfully porous, conceding 297 points and 38 tries in their nine league losses – not the sort of form that gave them a sniff of upsetting the odds in their round one European adventure to Dublin.   

It was November 25 when a Bath review admitted their dire need for a defence coach to be urgently appointed and 16 days later, why that appointment is very much needed became quickly clear in Dublin, Leinster producing two very different early tries in which the common theme was the flaky visiting rearguard. 

The first score, finished in a canter by Jamison Gibson-Park, stemmed from a series of neat passes by the hosts from their ten-metre line and it shredded the Bath defence. Then came a score off a set-piece, Rhys Ruddock galloping away from a lineout ruse and Tadhg Furlong barrelling over with far too much ease from the resulting ruck. 

There was a pair of kicks from young Orlando Bailey to ensure the scoreboard didn’t get too ragged too early, leaving it 12-6 on 15 minutes, but the huge difference in the speed of thought was brutally visible just minutes later. Four Bath players were left covering the blindside of a ruck where there was not a single Leinster threat as the left-winger James Lowe had run around the breakdown off the ball to the other side. It was no surprise he was on hand to finish this multi-phase move about a minute later.  

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Bad enough Bath trying to defend with their full complement, it then became worse watching them a man down to the sin bin for a collapsed maul. Hugo Keenan was gifted a clear run to the line for the bonus point try on 25 minutes. Then, having needed the TMO to chalk off a Jordan Larmour score, another soft try run-in quickly followed for Gibson-Park as Bath froze when the ball was spilt by a Leinster handling error.    

It summed up their brutal afternoon, too many players falling off tackles, too many players caught static with their feet rooted to the spot. That is simply not good enough at this level and trailing 31-6, the result was done and dusted before the half-hour mark.

They did somehow manage to see out the closing 51 minutes level with a 14-all score. They fired a pre-interval shot, executing a lovely lineout move to score a converted try to cut the margin to 18 points. During the break, the Leinster team of 2001 was introduced to the crowd 20 years after their Celtic League title win over Munster and the quip from the stadium announcer was that they still looked fit and could do a second-half job for Cullen if required. 

That was salt in a painful wound soon exacerbated by Ronan Kelleher and Josh van der Flier adding post-interval tries before replacement Gabe Hamer-Webb grabbed a late peach in reply, a rare highlight on a best forgotten day for Bath. They quickly need to act and find a no-nonsense defence coach or else the end at Bath will likely come for Hooper long before next summer’s off-season sanctuary arrives. Ten losses on the bounce with La Rochelle next up, it’s a people business where his deflated team just can’t continue losing the worrying way they have been.

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