After a number of years of underperforming – relative to the resources and talent at their disposal – Bath made the decision to promote from within and hand the reins of the club to Stuart Hooper, with the young director of rugby facing some unenviable expectations.
After nearly lifting the title under Mike Ford in the 2014/15 season, Bath regressed heavily the following campaign, a decline which prompted the hiring of then-Crusaders head coach Todd Blackadder. Three seasons of Heineken Champions Cup qualification followed, with the club finishing 5th in his first season, before 6th place finishes in 2018 and 2019; although the gap between themselves and the top two of Saracens and Exeter Chiefs, if anything, only seemed to widen.
There is little to no track record of Hooper in the top job to make assessments of how he will potentially look to build and mould the team moving forward, although on Saturday afternoon, when high-flying Northampton Saints came to the Rec, the foundations of the rebuild or evolution of the side became a little clearer.
The club recruited heavily in the front row over the summer, adding dynamic young props Will Stuart and Lewis Boyce to the mix, as well as a potent scrummager in the form of Christian Judge. These players were added to a group that already boasted Beno Obano and Nathan Catt, and internationals Henry Thomas and Lucas Noguera Paz. At hooker, they are able to call upon a talented triumvirate of Tom Dunn, Jack Walker and Ross Batty.
Combined with the hiring of scrum expert Neal Hatley as forwards coach, there clearly seems to be a focus at Farleigh House on building one of the more potent set-piece units in European rugby and as most teams zig towards the seemingly more influential lineout, Bath could be zagging towards the scrum, whose diminishing value was reinvigorated by the Springboks in the recent Rugby World Cup final.
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At the Rec on Saturday, Bath put Northampton’s tight five through the mill as they enjoyed near complete control at the scrum. Front rowers Stuart, Walker and Boyce – all former teammates at the England under-20 level in 2016 – showed that they can contribute to a dominant display in the tight, despite perhaps being better known for their ability in the loose. Obano and Dunn both showed the set-piece growth they have undergone over the last couple of years and, unsurprisingly, Judge kept the unit’s foot on the throat of Saints’ scrum from the bench.
If the club’s cadre of talented front rowers can also bring their ability in the loose to full bear, it will create quite the foundation for Hooper and his charges. Certain teams have committed to back row depth or versatile centre options, but none are seemingly investing the same kind of resources and faith into a group of front rowers. It’s an interesting trend to watch moving forward and if they can balance that set-piece focus with a level of freedom to express themselves in the loose, it’s a potentially explosive group.
England rugby coach Eddie Jones wants to coach in the NRL, and a Sydney newspaper has named the club he supposedly wants to take over.https://t.co/81cthPyA3b
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 11, 2019
Despite the front row not quite having that influence in the loose on Saturday, it was the best team performance of the season so far, with Bath’s only other win coming at home against Exeter Chiefs in round two. On paper, the win over Exeter might seem more impressive, but it was against Northampton where the team genuinely showed signs of beginning to click, particularly in the forward pack. In terms of the back line lacking a little gloss, that’s not too surprising, given that Joe Cokanasiga, Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson and Ruaridh McConnochie all still need to be reintroduced after the Rugby World Cup.
Making the Rec a tough place to go and win will likely be Hooper’s initial priority and it seems he has made a good start in that goal, though Bath’s form on the road has been a lot less inspiring. After being turned inside out by Bristol Bears on the opening night of the season, they followed that up with a loss away at Wasps, who look like a team that, in the early goings at least, should genuinely be wary of relegation this season. As we complete the first block of Premiership fixtures, that home and away disparity has been the story of Bath’s young season.
Given that the rugby can tighten up somewhat when the big European fixtures roll around and success is predicated on clean sweeping at home, it’s not crazy to suggest that Bath have a solid chance of qualifying from their Champions Cup pool this season. That campaign is set to commence this Saturday when they welcome Ulster to the Rec, before they head to the Stoop to play Harlequins in round two, with back-to-back fixtures against Clermont in December.
Another Vunipola making a name for himself in English Rugby. pic.twitter.com/1iLCkXUUgn
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 10, 2019
Ulster and Clermont have both made solid starts to the season, although the latter is perhaps a couple of wins below where they would like to be, even with their Rugby World Cup absentees. Harlequins, though, have struggled initially to build on their successes of last season, having fallen to three defeats in their opening four games. All three, however, pose a strong and appetising challenge to Bath’s newly bolstered front row.
Given the age profile of the club’s pack, which also does not lack for talent in the second or back rows, this could become a strength for them that they can lean on for a number of seasons moving forward. Combined with the quality they have in the back three and the promising talents, such as Max Ojomoh, Tom de Glanville and Nahum Merigan, that they are bringing through at other positions, there are shoots of life in the West Country.
We will get a better idea of how Hooper really wants this team playing once those internationals are back involved, though the early signs up front are of improvement and a solid return on their summer recruitment.
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