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'Flip-flops and ripped t-shirts - Bath were the boy band of rugby'

By Liam Heagney
Bath celebrate their 1996 English Cup win (Photo by David Tyrrell/EMPICS via Getty Images)

Bath have not been a consistent heavyweight in the professional rugby era, their struggles continuing to this day with Johann van Graan, their latest coach, enduring a difficult first few months in charge in the 2022/23 Gallagher Premiership season before some wins finally came to lift the team off the bottom of the league.

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It’s now 25 years since their first campaign in the professional era – 1996/97 – ended in failure. They had finished out the 1995/96 season, the last in England before the clubs turned pro, by claiming their sixth league title, pipping Leicester to first place by a point, and then defeating the Tigers to secure their tenth English Cup final title in front a then world record club attendance of 75,000 at Twickenham.

The following season, though, their amateur-era supremacy came apart at the seams with the sport going pro at club level. Bath finished six points behind the first-past-the-post league champions Wasps, they were knocked out of the cup in the round of 16 by Leicester and they were also defeated by Cardiff in the quarter-finals in the first Heineken European Cup campaign to feature clubs from England.

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Bath did gloriously get it right at the second attempt, becoming the first British side to lift the Heineken Cup when they defeated Brive in the 1998 final in Bordeaux. That incredible decider has now been brilliantly remembered in the latest episode of Rugby Stories, the BT Sport Pods series that has been recalling famous moments in the histories of the Premiership clubs.

This compelling story of the Bath European success, however, had its genesis in what unfolded during their haphazard 1996/97 attempt to make the transition from amateur to professional. Former Test-level duo Richard Webster and Andy Nicol were among those to shed light on those teething issues.

Ex-Wales forward Webster, who moved from the 1993 Lions tour into rugby league with Salford, recalled his first impressions of the professional-era Bath. “I went to the first game in a blazer and a tie like I would normally and they all turned up in flip-flops and ripped t-shirts. They were the pop stars, they were the boy band of the rugby world. They were confident.

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“They did come from a very successful amateur era which I had watched and admired but then as they came into the professional era, it didn’t quite pay off. Brian Ashton was the head coach and he had this idea of complete rugby and he wanted the ball in play, he used to time us on how long we kept the ball in play.

“He didn’t want it kicked off, didn’t want dead play, he wanted the ball to be played in the hands as much as possible so they were trying to play a brand of rugby and we wanted to be the best team but it wasn’t a marker and coming into the professional era, Europe became a marker but unfortunately we were off the mark for the first year.”

Ex-Scotland scrum-half Nicol, who was skipper for 1998 European final, added his take on how the Bath amateur-era dominance diminished in that first professional season after they failed to understand what the transition should have involved.

“It was appalling but we weren’t alone. When the game went professional nobody knew what to do. Nobody knew how to prepare a rugby team in a professional environment.

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“The only team that did it well was Newcastle because under John Hall they were aligned to Newcastle United. They knew sports science, recovery, nutrition, all of that because Newcastle United Football Club had done it for years and years and years. The rest of the rugby teams were just making it up.

“There was almost a blank sheet of paper. We went from training twice a week and playing on a Saturday to training twice a day and playing on Friday, Saturday, Sunday depending on when the TV game dictated it. It was like they filled each day with training and there was no real science to it.

“It was probably the science that was available at the time but you look back even five years into professional and you go, ‘Wow, we got that so wrong’. I don’t know who it was that said this but I’ll take credit for it if I can’t remember who it was – Bath were the most professional of amateur sides yet the most amateur of professional sides.”

Back to Webster, who compared life as a pro rugby league player to what he initially encountered at Bath. “I played for Salford for four seasons and in four seasons we never tackled each other once in training, we never did one physical contact session but when we went into the game in rugby league an unwritten rule is there are 13 of you and we were hard and 13 of you stand up and be counted.

“I have seen small backs, outside halves playing with broken arms until they get dragged off. That’s the unwritten rule but we never had to do it in training, it was always done on the field. I went to Bath and why I don’t think they grasped the professional era quite so much was we trained five days a week and every day we beat each other up in training.

“When we came to the weekend we weren’t quite as sharp as we should have been but I think it was a case of ‘we’re paying you, we’re paying you lots of money, you do as we say’ which didn’t really work out when it came to putting it out on the field on a Saturday.”

“We didn’t make that transition well at all,” agreed Nicol. “As I say we weren’t alone in that, it’s just I guess because of the success that Bath had had in the amateur era everyone just presumed that that success would continue and the mistakes that were made meant we probably came back in the pack a little bit.”

  • For the full Bath episode, check out BT Sport’s podcast series, Rugby Stories, part of the BT Sport Pods lineup of podcasts. Every Monday, Rugby Stories, presented by Craig Doyle, will spotlight and celebrate English club rugby history. Btsport.com/pods

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