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Back from the abyss, Bath's revival is gathering steam

Johan van Graan has quietly set about improving every facet of the West Country club and results are starting to come

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'I've learned recently to be more self-deprecating than arrogant'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Austin Healey, the famed ‘Leicester Lip’ who now delivers his stylistic sound bites on BT Sport, doesn’t miss a trick. No sooner had his Zoom call with RugbyPass connected the other day was he asking what club the No3 jersey hanging in the background behind his interviewer was. It was a Leinster sub-academy shirt that had just come out of the wash and was placed up high and out of the way until it caught the eye of the always curious ex-England international.  

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Spotting the lesser spotted things has become a trademark of Healey since he swapped the boots for commentary booth, going on to become a familiar face on the BT Sport coverage. His eagle eye is not by chance either. 

Ask how he developed the knack of identifying obscure events in play that he quickly reviews and explains for the benefit of those watching on live TV, the 48-year-old jogs his memory back to a time long before he became a Leicester, England and Lions player. 

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“Many people don’t know it but when I finished my A levels I spent my whole summer watching videos,” he began. “I’d watch ten, 15 hours a day. I wouldn’t watch the game per se, I’d watch the movement and how the game flowed and how you number off and what the sides were doing and how they physically turn their bodies. 

“I did bio-mechanics in university which probably helped, so actually when I am commentating I tend to look for body shapes and noises more than anything else at the start of the analytic process and that process has been so refined that you can do it now within ten, 15 seconds after the event. 

“As a team, I don’t think in any other sport – and I include NFL in this – there is analytics that come out that quickly with that much depth of knowledge. It’s a real benefit to BT Sport that we have got to this position.”

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You need to be careful, though, when interviewing Healey. While he stressed the word team in the above description, there were numerous instances during his chat with RugbyPass where he played such a straight bat with his answers that it was hard to tell he was actually joking and did have his tongue firmly planted in his cheek.  

For instance, a query about the dynamic among the stellar cast of BT Sport pundits was met by this straight bat reply. “I think we are quite competitive as pundits but mainly the others because I am the best pundit and the best analyst so it is for the others to try and catch me.”

As for the best all-time Healey TV moment: “I particularly enjoy it when my fellow compatriots mess up, particularly Ben. So if Ben accidentally swears on air, it is the highlight of my year. (It happens) Pretty much every week, the king of innuendo is Ben Kay. Every game is an innuendo.” 

Or this: “We have got a great team here, it’s is just a privilege to work with Craig Doyle now that he is working in daytime TV.”

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This Healey brand of deadpan humour comes at a cost, though, as his BT Sport colleagues give it back to him in spades on their live broadcasts. Is he bothered by so often being the butt of the joke? “I have learned in recent years to be more self-deprecating than arrogant and lions don’t really care what the hyenas laugh at,” he said dismissively. 

Let’s move on to the rugby away from the broadcast panel’s banter. The Healey career in the game was founded on being an integral cog in the Leicester machine when they ruled England and Europe in the late 1990s/early 2000s but the disrepair the powerhouse had since fallen into left many questioning if they could ever bounce back to glory. 

That answer was affirmatively delivered in June at Twickenham, Leicester scaling the heights to be crowned champions of England at the end of Steve Borthwick’s second anniversary in charge of a club that seemed destined for relegation before he took over. 

The success left its mark on Healey, who described the turnaround as probably the biggest achievement by the Tigers in the professional era, surpassing the greatness of the feats recorded by the marvellous Leicester teams he himself played in.

“Out of all their achievements of the last three decades, it is probably the biggest,” he reckoned. “It was an absolute mammoth effort to turn the club around in such a short period of time and I’m quite happy to eat humble pie. When Steve Borthwick arrived I didn’t think he would be the right fit for the club, but there could not have been more of a right guy for the club how it has turned out.

“Along with Kevin Sinfield and the other coaches there, Brett Deacon and some of the fitness guys, they have developed and proved that a little bit like Leinster in a lot of ways that if you get the right culture and the right squad ethos then whether you are a superstar or you are someone who comes off the bench, you always perform.”

Healey was working at the Premiership final, mixing his time between being down on the touchline and up in the BT Sport commentary booth in the stands. He kept things professional, refusing to allow the dramatic Freddie Burns title-sealing moment to waver his on-screen composure. However, the sight of Tom Youngs striding out for the trophy presentation pushed him over the edge.  

“I was at the final and it was a brilliant occasion. To be honest, I was fine with Leicester winning. My emotions didn’t get the better of me but then when I saw Tom Youngs come onto the field given what he and his family have been through, it was a little more difficult to hold the tears back because you realise when you are in professional sport you too often get blinded by the reality of life. 

“The reality of life is that family and friends come before everything else and sometimes you can put them on the back burner when you are in pursuit of what in your mind is greatness or winning and it’s a real leveller when you see how much it meant to those guys.”

Healey is ravenous to learn how the 2022/23 Premiership season will unfold on BT Sport. It has already gotten off to a bang with so many exciting games already played over the opening two weekends and he predicts further thrills and spills will definitely follow. 

“I am looking forward to seeing how Bath perform this year because (Johann) van Graan did a fantastic job over there (at Munster) and now he is at Bath and I think he will get the culture right. They have got undeniable talent. They have signed Piers Francis at twelve and he will help the young talent in (Orlando) Bailey and Max Ojomoh, who could be the young player of the year and bolter into that World Cup squad. 

“I’m looking down the west country, Bath and Gloucester really, and Saracens are favourites at the start of the season. What you see in Gloucester this year with Ed Slater will be a hugely galvanising effect on them and they will be a real force this year.”

Away from the Premiership, England boss Eddie Jones has frequently been in the Healey crosshairs. We playfully asked if he would ever welcome BT Sport allowing Jones to join him as part of their commentary team for a Premiership match. “Yeah, as long as it was a very high-up gantry with very weak fencing,” he quipped without blinking. 

In all seriousness, though, is a coach he suggested should be sacked following another dismal Guinness Six Nations the right man to lead England to the 2023 World Cup in France now that they are coming off the back of a tour series win in Australia? “They are a lot better than they were a year ago,” he admitted. 

“He was on a see-saw for his job I think during the summer. Had it gone badly I don’t think he still would be here. The tour went well. Hopefully, there will be some stability in selection and fitness now for those guys and we can start to decipher how England are going to play over the next twelve months because the countdown will come quick and fast now and everyone has got to get behind him. 

“There is no point criticising him now. He is there for the World Cup, so let’s get behind him and see if we can build England into having a chance. Ireland are probably the favourites along with France and then you sit South Africa behind those two and then a lot further down is England – but England only really have to win two very difficult games to get into the final and then anything can happen.” 

Healey is satisfied he has managed to stay involved in rugby since retiring from playing in 2006 by exploring the broadcasting route and finding a home from home at BT Sport. “I do class myself as very fortunate. When you finish playing it is almost impossible unless you go into coaching to have a foot on the field. You can stand in the stands and you can sponsor things or you can work in a suit but our job (with BT Sport) means in a small way you get to be a part of it. 

“You get to be a part of the game and you get to be behind the ropes in a golf sense and that is why I am still doing it all this time later. We have got a wonderful bunch of people and have a laugh. Hopefully, that comes across. We do our serious stuff, we analyse the game better than anyone else but there is no reason why you can’t enjoy each other’s company.”

If Healey was ever to coach rugby, the youths sector is where he feels he could best fit in. Away from BT Sport, he helped out during summer with numerous sports camps – the likes of the Festival of Sport at Holkham Estate and another in Italy at the Forte Village Resort – and came away with certain ideas to get more youngsters active. “I suppose I really enjoy coaching kids, 15, 16, 17-year-old kids, boys and girls, so when this (TV work) ends that is something I maybe will go into a little bit. 

“I’m really passionate about it. Unfortunately, Liz Truss beat me to the position of Prime Minister but had I been there one of the first things I would have done outside of fixing the prices of energy, I would have closed down social media sites in the UK. They are having a hugely detrimental effect on our youth and our ability to get out and play sport. 

“We had a festival recently at Holkham and decided not to put a wifi network on. We had multiple wifi networks for the festival to run but we didn’t make it open so we didn’t allow any of the participants to join it. That is not preventing them from having fun, it is actually enabling them to have more fun because they put their devices down and get involved in sport, particularly the girls.  

“Once the initial ‘I can’t get a signal, I have got not wifi’, there was a realisation that they could be a kid again, they could climb a tree or go to bow and arrow or do skipping or rugby, do netball or cricket or football. You actually rediscover what it is really all about.”

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