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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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'More surgeries this year than I've seen in 22 years in the sport'

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

Stuart Hooper has claimed he has never seen a team suffer as many surgeries as Bath have this season in his 20-plus years in rugby. The 40-year-old is nearing the end of his third year as the director of rugby at The Rec following a lengthy playing career that spanned considerable spells as a second row at both Leeds and Bath.

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The upshot of this season is the unavailability of numerous players for long periods of time has hampered the competitiveness of a team that came into the 2021/22 campaign with huge ambitions. Instead, they have struggled and currently head into their third last match of the season on Saturday at Gloucester as the bottom club in the 13-team Gallagher Premiership.

Such has been the struggle that a coaching overhaul was initiated in December for the upcoming 2022/23 season, Johann van Graan agreed to move from Munster in Ireland to the West Country in the hope of bringing about a much-needed improvement. In the meantime, Bath are putting together an injury audit that might possibly help enhance their durability next term.

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“We constantly look at things on a daily basis, but look back at chunks too,” explained Hooper when asked for his explanation on a Bath season that has left much to be desired. “Anyone who sits here and says we wouldn’t have done anything differently is probably lying to themselves. 

“Of course, there are things we would do differently. There are issues that came up that are difficult to do differently, like the unavailability of players, injuries and all that stuff. Some of them you could look at and say that in the short term we would have reacted to them differently, which is good. That is learning and getting better as a group. Some of them you have to say it was just a tough period.

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“We have had more surgeries this year than I have ever seen in 22 years in the sport. That is a reality and what we need to make sure we do everything we can to stop that from happening. But equally, if that is the new normal then we have to find a way to work around it.

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“We’re looking at it. This period of time is always a time when we reflect very strongly over the back end of the season on what has happened, an injury audit and an understanding of all of those is part of that. Off the top of my head, many of them have been what we would call catastrophic contact injuries where, in the moment, there is nothing you can do.

“We haven’t changed any material elements of our training. I know there has been a bit in the media about the days that people train and the breaks in training. We have been in that model for 18 months now. Generally, our injuries have been picked up in games and when we have got all the data we will then be able to make decisions and make recommendations for what we do going forward.”

In their first season with Hooper as the director of rugby, Bath produced an uplifting post-lockdown run to the semi-finals of the 2019/20 Premiership. That consistency has since been elusive, but he is hoping that this season’s wounding struggle will be invaluable to him as a boss looking to do much better in the future.

“It has been an incredibly rich experience. I don’t think there has never been a day when I haven’t learned something and that is what I take from it. Of course, it is disappointing from a league position perspective and I wouldn’t wish that upon anybody but as a team, as a group, what we have learned can be absolutely priceless moving forward. 

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“I talk about that in regard to the young players who have played a huge amount of Premiership. We have never had as many minutes played by our academy graduates but also from a staffing group as well, this staffing group are growing together and learning together and will I am sure take a huge amount out of the difficulties we have encountered this year.” 

A prized silver lining in the immediate weeks, though, would be Hooper and co lifting Bath off the foot of the table before the season ends. There is no relegation but all the same, no one wants to finish last no matter what the tournament they are in. “Of course, we want to make sure we put ourselves in that position. There is absolutely an opportunity to do that, picking up those wins to take us off the bottom. We will be doing everything we possibly can.” 

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