'From what I hear Neal Hatley now has full control of the coaching and the players are really buying into him'
Lewis Moody believes Bath are finally in a position to end years of hurt and capture a first league title since the old Pilkington Cup was claimed in 1996. Serial winners across the 1980s and early 1990s, the West Country club have endured a painful drought of 24 years since they were last crowned champions of England, with Bath yet to win English rugby’s premier competition in the professional era.
There has been plenty of near misses and false starts along the way, as well as a couple of Heineken Cup (1998) and Challenge Cup wins (2008), although Bath haven’t reached the Premiership play-offs since losing the 2014-15 decider to Saracens.
However there is a renewed optimism that the club are now capable of mounting a serious challenge after a hugely promising resurgence, with Bath particularly impressive following the rugby restart in August, a run which coincided with forwards coach Neal Hatley being bumped up to the role of head coach.
Tuesday sees Bath host eighth-placed Gloucester in a West Country derby at the Rec, where a win would see them jump to second in the Premiership table.
And former Bath flanker Moody, who won seven Premiership titles and 2 Heineken Cups during a decorated club career, says supporters have every right to be feeling optimistic heading into the season run-in, insisting the club now have what it takes to finally end their long wait for a title.
“I honestly do. I absolutely do (believe they can win the Premiership),” Moody says.
“I think it’s a really exciting time. For a long time Bath have underdelivered and underperformed in the Premiership, especially when you look at the talent they’ve had.
“Bath for me, as well as Exeter, have been the most consistent (since the restart). Wasps and Sale have been good when they have wanted to be but they’ve not been as consistent as Bath and Exeter.
“It’s about peaking at the right time. Think of Wasps, the Lawrence Dallaglio, Josh Lewsey vintage, they did exactly that and knew how to peak for the finals.
“Whether it was intended or not, or whether it’s just (a result of the) break from the coronavirus lockdown, it’s given Bath a reset and an opportunity to be in a better position than they were before with the right people in the right positions and creating the right environment, all hooked into one common goal.
“I genuinely believe they can make it to the final. And if they do that then it’s anyone’s game.”
Bath’s upturn on the pitch has been nothing short of remarkable. Before the season was suspended in March they had lost six of their 13 games. Since returning to action in August, they’ve won six of their seven league outings.
The mark of potential champions?
“Stuart Hooper and Neal Hatley have played a brilliant deck of cards,” Moody explains.
“They’ve seen the heavy load in terms of games (since the restart) and they’ve just been very sensible and very careful.
“Obviously you can’t do a huge amount of training, the intensity and the physicality of the training is completely tuned down. Chatting to a lot of the playing group, they all feel fit, there have been very few injuries, and they’re just in a really good place.
“I think Stuart Hooper has done a very good job in getting the players that he wanted nailed down early. There were changes in personnel on the playing side and behind the scenes with some of the staff and I think with all of that, they feel they have got the environment and the people they want in the roles they want.
“Then you suddenly see that reflected in performances on the pitch. But most importantly they are all coming into a game feeling fresh and not carrying niggles because they aren’t being blitzed in training week-in-week out.
“You want your team to be confident and you want performances going in the right direction. Not only do Bath have that in abundance with the guys that are starting, they have it with the whole squad because they have been able to rotate players. You’ve got young guys coming through that have been given a chance when they’ve taken them, they’ve been kept on, and then you’re creating that competition for place and that belief. All of a sudden you see how that starts to impact performance and results, and they seem to have absolutely nailed it post lockdown.”
The only blemish on Bath’s record since the restart was the 27-23 loss at home to Wasps in late August. Having raced into a 13-0 lead with just 10 minutes on the clock Bath looked well-placed to keep their winning run intact as Wasps suffered a string of injuries, forcing uncontested scrums before half-time. The visitors somehow rallied to win a thrilling game by five points.
The manner of the defeat could have seriously dented Bath’s confidence, but instead they responded by beating Harlequins and Worcester by 14 and 25 points respectively before laying down a real marker with a commanding 15 point win at Sale last time out.
For Moody, it’s an indication of the winning mentality Hooper and Hatley have instilled in the squad over the past few weeks.
“Again that comes down to building the right environment, having the right people in the right place,” he explains.
“From what I hear Neal Hatley now has full control of the coaching and on the playing side, the players are really buying into him as an individual.
“Then all of a sudden you can build a mindset and it’s very easy to bounce back from those blips when you know what direction you’re heading in. And OK, sometimes you get it wrong and you lose a game, but actually they know they should have won that match (against Wasps) and they would be seven from seven now, in theory. Sometimes those blips just help to refocus the mind, and it’s “Yeah, OK, we thought we were good, but we’re not quite where we need to be, so let’s nail it.'”
Such is the nature of the condensed calendar following the suspension of the season, teams already have one eye on the 2020/21 campaign, which is penciled in to kick-off in late November.
Bath have been linked with a number of high-profile signings in recent weeks, with South African fly-half Damian Willemse the latest big name doing the rounds, but Moody would also like to see some future-proofing in other areas of the squad if Bath are to keep challenging for silverware.
“I think probably in the front row. I know they’ve got a few guys who have been there for a while, you’ve got (Tom) Dunn, you’ve got (Ross) Batty. I think in that hooker position, even though those two guys are both very experienced and Tom has obviously had some time with England over the last couple of years in the wider squads, I think maybe (they should be) looking at a world-class hooker.
“And this might sound a bit strange, but maybe a Number Eight, because Taulupe Faletau is unbelievable, (but) he’s getting on a bit now. Yes, you’ve got (Zach) Mercer, but again, if Faletau left, having someone as dependable as he is… Mercer is bit more of the sort of flamboyant player, so maybe someone who is as dependable and skilful as Faletau to come in and fill that role I think.
“Notice how I picked two forwards, I leave my area of expertise to the front eight!”
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