Can Bath emulate Liverpool and end decades-long Premiership title drought?
If there is one Gallagher Premiership club that will have been inspired by Liverpool ending 30 years of frustration, near misses and agonising second-place finishes by winning the Premier League title this season, it is Bath.
Bath’s 25-year domestic dry patch might fall just short of Liverpool’s stint, but given the smaller world of professional rugby in England relative to football and Bath’s position as one of the few financial giants in a landscape of unnerving balance sheets, it arguably makes their barren spell an even more disappointing one.
Like Liverpool, domestic and European cup success has come in that period, though runners-up medals in 2004 and 2015 are the closest the club has come to lifting the coveted Premiership title, where they were thwarted by the behemoths of the time respectively in London Wasps and Saracens.
During that time, the likes of Newcastle Falcons, Harlequins, Northampton Saints, Exeter Chiefs and Sale Sharks have all won titles of their own, whilst domestic rugby has largely been dominated by the trio of Wasps, Leicester Tigers and Saracens, with those three clubs accounting for 18 of the 23 titles since Bath last won the league.
Again, mirroring Liverpool, Bath are a club with a great pedigree in the sport, having been the flagship side in English rugby during the 80’s and early 90’s, though they have since seceded that moniker. Despite the financial resources Bath currently have at their disposal, the professional era has not been a kind one to the club, as they swiftly fell behind the duopoly of Wasps and Tigers when the amateur era came to an end.
When the 2019/20 season gets back underway in August, Bath will sit 6th in the table, only five points behind Northampton Saints in 4th, who are currently in possession of a playoff spot. It’s not out of the question that Bath could push themselves up into that mix as the season draws closer to its conclusion, though it would take an optimistic Bath fan to suggest that the team could end it’s long wait this season, with Exeter, Sale and Bristol Bears all looking particularly dangerous before Covid-19 brought the campaign to a grinding halt.
Nevertheless, there have been flashes from Bath this season. Green shoots that fans will hope is a signalling of a change in fortune for a club that, whilst intermittently having challenged towards the top of the Premiership, has settled into a competitive mid-table position for much of the past two decades. Optimistically, this season has reinforced that the Bath squad is talent-rich and deep in certain key positions.
Last summer, the club clearly put an emphasis on being stronger up front, as demonstrated by the signings of Lewis Boyce, Christian Judge and Will Stuart. Injected in alongside Beno Obano, Nathan Catt and Henry Thomas, as well as the soon-to-be arriving Juan Schoeman, Bath have as enviable a group of props as you are likely to find in the Premiership. Tom Dunn and Jack Walker, if he can stay fit, is an impressive one-two punch at hooker, too.
The back row is, for want of a better word, loaded. Taulupe Faletau, Zach Mercer and Sam Underhill are a formidable trio and they are pushed hard by Tom Ellis, Mike Williams and Josh Bayliss, with Bayliss now presented with the opportunity to try and replace some of the clinical fetching of Francois Louw.
Ben Spencer arrives from Saracens and adds to the quality in a group that already boasted Will Chudley, one of the most under-appreciated scrum-halves in the Premiership over the past five years, as well as Max Green and youngster Oliver Fox. They will be joined by academy product Tom Carr-Smith next season, too, with the Sherborne pupil among the more physical nines to come through English schoolboy rugby in recent seasons.
Already boasting a bright prospect in the form of Max Ojomoh in the centres, Bath also went out and added Cameron Redpath from Sale in a mid-season move that now gives them two contrasting and equally talented options in the midfield. Club stalwart Jonathan Joseph is also available whenever not on England duty and both Max Wright and Max Clark will be at the Rec for at least another season. The signing of Fijian international Josh Matavesi also gives Bath some extra cover during the Guinness Six Nations.
Finally, the back three is littered with game-changers, as Joe Cokanasiga, Anthony Watson, Semesa Rokoduguni and Ruaridh McConnochie jostle for position. Gabriel Hamer-Webb, in just his first season out of school, impressed enough to warrant an immediate uplift from a senior academy contract to a full senior deal. At full-strength, you will struggle to find a Premiership club who can match Bath’s quality at the position.
The match has been all but confirmed ? There are going to be more than a few disappointed folks with the eligibility decision though… #AllBlacks #SuperRugbyAotearoa #NorthvSouthhttps://t.co/dw3Y9TEbNi
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 26, 2020
Of course, it’s not all roses in Bath’s garden, otherwise the club would likely have already ended their domestic title drought and there are still areas that need to be addressed if Bath are to emulate Liverpool and end that long wait.
At lock, Charlie Ewels and Will Spencer should form a productive partnership, though resources are relatively thin behind them. Josh McNally and Elliott Stooke are effective operators but should injury strike or England come calling for Ewels, Bath don’t quite have the depth at the position as some other clubs, especially with Matt Garvey leaving this summer. Ewan Richards and Ethan Staddon are two exciting talents coming on board this year from Millfield and Beechen Cliff respectively, though it is a big ask to have players as young as that contribute significantly at a position as physically-demanding as lock.
Another area where Bath look at least a little short is in the back three. As good as the quality is at the top of the group, the depth is lacking, with Cokanasiga and Watson regular England call-ups. The swift rise of Hamer-Webb helps, as does the evolution of Tom de Glanville as a full-back, rather than a fly-half, although Stuart Hooper will still be hoping that England don’t look too keenly at McConnochie and that Rokoduguni can stay fit next season.
Perhaps the most notable problem position currently for Bath is fly-half, where Rhys Priestland is the lone established option that the club can call upon. Freddie Burns has headed to Japan, Alex Davies has been released and, as mentioned previously, de Glanville is looking more and more like a full-back than a fly-half. Unless the club add someone else between now and the new season, that is a lot of potential responsibility going on to the shoulders of Orlando Bailey, who joins Bath’s senior academy from Beechen Cliff this summer.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 25, 2020
Like Liverpool for much of the Premier League era, Bath have a XV that can go head-to-head with anyone. They have individual talents who could walk into teams all over the world. What they don’t necessarily have, though, is the depth across the board to survive injuries and international call-ups and topple Exeter at the top of the table, just as Liverpool didn’t have the quality throughout the squad to end the dynasty of Manchester United in the 90’s and 2000’s.
At 33, Priestland is probably not the orchestrator at fly-half that the club will aim to build around moving forward and finding the player that can provide that for them will be paramount. Hooper will at least have the next 12 months or so to take a closer look at Bailey and ascertain whether or not he can be that player in the future.
One more experienced lock, to help the club transition to the duo of Richards and Staddon in a few years’ time, would be helpful, as would a solid back three option or two, both of whom ideally wouldn’t be in the mix for international rugby.
Given that squad depth is going to be an issue for Premiership rugby clubs moving forward with the squeeze on the salary cap, the fact that Bath are reportedly one of the teams to have moved quickly to sign key players to new long-term deals – therefore circumnavigating the new lower cap – the club should have no excuses in terms of being able to field a squad capable of challenging for and lifting the Premiership title.
Of course, the likes of Exeter and Bristol will have plenty to say about that next season and beyond, though as foundations go for Bath ending this miserable spell, the club are far from in the worst position.
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