There will be nothing but friendly hellos and open doors when Stuart Hooper arrives at the Rec on Saturday two days out from his 38th birthday.
Bath have a Champions Cup campaign to get underway at home to Ulster and the prodigal son, who in recent times has gone from on-pitch talisman to off-pitch troubleshooter, will be expected to confidently get the show on the road in a tournament the club frustratingly haven’t won since 1998.
He won’t miss a beat perched high above the East Stand, his vantage point giving him a bird’s eye view of proceedings below on the hallowed turf he graced for so many years. But the vantage point wasn’t always this luxurious.
Glimpses of the action were only fleeting when he first clapped eyes on the club of his dreams as a ten-year-old, watching from Pulteney Bridge as a kid a fair size shorter than the 6ft 5in frame he went on to eke out a very credible Premiership career with.
He was immediately smitten, though, and here he is nearly 28 years later, in charge of the whole shooting match and aiming to rekindle Bath’s old love affair with winning trophies.
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“It’s very difficult to put into words,” he told RugbyPass about his long attachment with Bath which was only interrupted in the foothills of his playing career when he went away to earn his stripes at Saracens and Leeds.
“It means a huge amount to me. From a personal point of view, I first watched the club when I was ten years old and dreamt one day playing for them and then ended up captaining them for five years.
“We weren’t in the ground, we were above the ground looking into it on the bridge above,” he said, casting his mind to it all started from a spot above the River Avon looking on over the walls.
— Bath Rugby (@bathrugby) November 13, 2019
“It’s just a very evocative memory of what this arena right in the middle of a city felt like. Then life goes on and I kind of watched a bit, enjoyed supporting them through the ’90s and then started my own professional career in ’99 and eventually got the opportunity to play for them and played for nine years.
“There was stages of the journey where it was always like ‘this is incredibly special’ and then to be asked last year to lead the club this summer was a huge moment of pride for me, something I am determined to do well.”
He has his hands full as director of rugby. As a player, looking after himself and ensuring he was ready to peak every weekend was the priority. Now the demands are very, very different, a responsibility he aims not to shirk in any way.
‘In life, in rugby, things aren’t always going to go the way you want them to and you’re going to be dealt some pretty s*** hands’
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 25, 2019
“The whole thing is around continually understanding what the role means. The role is very different every day. 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 and everyone will tell you it is time-consuming and all-encompassing. I don’t think I was surprised by that, but it was just a realisation that that is what it is.”
If there is a comparison about the value the club hopes he will bring, it’s with Leinster’s Leo Cullen. The Irish club’s long-serving lock switched from club captain to club boss quicker than envisaged when Matt O’Connor was sacked and while there were initial teething problems, Cullen has since gone on to enjoy remarkable success.
That feeling when @ChampionsCup rugby is back.
— Bath Rugby (@bathrugby) November 11, 2019
Similar joy is longed for at the Rec now that Hooper, their long-time rugged skipper, has taken over the reins from Todd Blackadder earlier than expected. He knows the comparisons are there and would love nothing better that to get Bath back to where he feels they belong.
“There is always going to be different comparisons with different people. The important thing for us is we are Bath and we are pushing ahead with the way we feel that is right. Leo has done a fantastic job at Leinster, as Stu (Lancaster) has as well. I have a lot of admiration for what they have done.
“As with any other environment I try and learn as much as I can from as many different people, and Leo is certainly someone who has had tremendous success as a former player.
“It is a massively challenging role in an incredibly challenging competition. But exciting was the overriding feeling and the opportunity to work with the group of players that we have got is massive. It remains exciting and remains challenging.
“I didn’t come to Bath until 2007, but memories of the victory down in Bordeaux in ’98, memories of the guys lifting the trophy and bringing it back to Bath, are very vivid.
“This city is so vibrant on game day and the support from the whole city is massive. Looking back over recent history when we got to different finals, the whole place comes alive and to have our supporters behind us is massive. Success is what we want to bring back to the club, for sure.
Who are those big lumps wondering around the rugby field?? ????
One of those very same lumps himself back in the day ? @bathrugby director of rugby ? Stuart Hooper is here to describe THE SECOND ROW ?
New to the game? Still learning? Let the pros explain. pic.twitter.com/UJb2eRMZKU
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) November 12, 2019
“I don’t think we are very far away. The margins are tiny,” he suggested following a start to the Premiership where Bath have broken even, winning twice and losing twice. “The challenges are huge but we have a group of players that are determined to succeed. They are a group of players that are excited to play with each other.
“They are excited to try and create something and what we have got is a load of other clubs who want to do the same thing. We have got to be diligent, we have got to be professional but we have also got to enjoy what we do and forge our own path. We are very much committed to our performances and to putting in place the thing that we practice, getting our guys back from the World Cup and pushing on.”
Balancing the books is all part of Hooper’s new remit as director of rugby and the salary cap governing the Premiership has been all the rage since punishment was meted out to Saracens, his former club, last week. “It seems to have been dealt with thoroughly and very professionally. From our point of view, it doesn’t change a huge amount. We’re focused on getting into the top four without or without Saracens in that top four.
“That is what we want to do and we will be doing everything to make that happen. It [salary cap] is always a challenge but that is a challenge we sign up for. It is something we are all aware of and understanding the nuances is something we have to do. It is part of the role and something we do thoroughly and regularly.”
There will be no pause for breath now that Bath are entering the business end of winter. Ulster, Harlequins and Clermont twice are all waiting for them in Europe, a four-match run of fixtures only broken in the middle by welcoming the aforementioned Saracens to the Rec in the league on November 29.
It’s a tasty schedule, one where Hooper will learn much about his Bath squad and about how he is faring himself in a new role his four sons are taking great interest in. “They’re eleven, eight, six and four. They love the rugby and are my biggest supporters. They are supporters as well as my sons, so they love it when we win and they give me a hard time when we lose.
“I do try to (get a break from rugby when I can). I do think it is important to create a little bit of space. I try and find a little bit of time. I spent a little bit of time playing with my sons, take the dog for a walk and spend time with the family just away from all the electronic media and that sort of stuff. Just have a bit of time to think and then get back to it… it keeps me very level going back into the players the next day.”
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