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The bold prediction that Ben Kay has made about the future of Bath

By Liam Heagney
Bath's Alfie Barbeary celebrates semi-final success (Photo by Patrick Khachfe/Getty Images)

Ben Kay and his fellow rugby pundits at TNT Sports have had it easy this season. There’s nothing worse than having to jazz up a poor on-pitch spectacle to keep viewers tuned in, but the calibre of the entertainment generated by the 2023/24 Gallagher Premiership has been stratospheric.

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“Fans from different countries don’t necessarily agree but we feel we don’t have to big the Premiership up this year,” enthused Kay to RugbyPass with the countdown on towards Saturday’s eagerly anticipated final featuring the success-starved duo, Bath and Northampton.

“It [the action] has done its own work. It has been the most hotly contested with the best quality of rugby we have seen in the Premiership and it’s just a joy to have been there. Part of the role of a commentator is getting the tone right.

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Springbok Damian de Allende joins Jim Hamilton for a fascinating chat about all things Springbok rugby, including RWC2023 and the upcoming Ireland series. Full interview coming Thurs 6th June.

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Damian de Allende – Walk the Talk Trailer | RPTV

Springbok Damian de Allende joins Jim Hamilton for a fascinating chat about all things Springbok rugby, including RWC2023 and the upcoming Ireland series. Full interview coming Thurs 6th June.

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“When you’re a rugby player you analyse stuff in a boring way because are always looking for the mistakes. Your normal chatting style, it feels a bit alien but you have to sort of ham it up a little bit otherwise it sounds really, really boring. But we haven’t had to reach too far to do that because some of the tries have just been out of this world.

“I can’t remember a better Premiership season,” he continued, still chuckling about the level of drama played out across 19 weekends, 18 rounds of regular season fixtures since last October and then a brilliant semi-final adventure at Franklin’s Gardens and The Rec.

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“Usually in a World Cup year getting to this stage of the season, you are, ‘C’mon, get the last couple of weeks over with and we can have a bit of a rest’, but I just don’t want it to end. It’s such a good season and two new teams are into the final.

“The baggage that we always talk about in finals, will that team be able to get over the line this time or Saracens have the big players, they have been there before so they are going to be favourites, that’s just gone.

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“We have just got the two teams that have been best all season… the best entertaining, attacking rugby that we have seen for a long time in the Premiership and they are going head to head. It couldn’t be better.

“I was at Northampton on Friday, Bath on Saturday. I have been to those stadiums hundreds of times before. Loved the atmosphere at both of them but I have never experienced atmospheres like that. The weight of expectations amongst the fans is off the charts, hence the sell-out for the final.”

A year ago, you could have strolled up to Twickenham on showpiece day and had your pick of the seats to watch Saracens defeat Sale. Not so this Saturday. Premiership Rugby confirmed on Wednesday that all 82,000 tickets were sold, such has been the demand to attend a finale pitting Bath, a team without a league title since 1996, and Northampton, whose most recent glory was a decade ago.

Kay, who will feature in the coverage of the final on TNT Sports 1 and discovery+, describes the sudden Bath transformation under Johann van Grann as comparable to what happened after Saracens when Brendan Venter was appointed.

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“Bath have been serial under-achievers when you think about when Bruce Craig took over and the obvious resources that he pumped into the club, but to have turned it around so quickly (under van Graan) is quite impressive.

“Even if they don’t win, I could see Bath dominating for the next few years a little bit. There is almost an element of similarities between Saracens when Nigel Wray was bringing in a couple of star names but they were never really up where his investment should have made them and then suddenly they bring in Brendan Venter and everything changes.

“They put a structure in place that feeds off the success. If you look at Bath, it’s very similar. They have invested a lot of money but they have brought in Johann van Graan, another South African, a very family club orientated, making them feel like they are doing it together.

“You look at a lot of the other teams and the personnel they are losing next season. Bath aren’t really losing big names. They have got a lot of strength in depth and you could see them going on and being right at the top for the next four or five years at least.”

What impresses Kay most is how van Graan and on-pitch conductor Finn Russell have gelled since the Scottish player’s arrival last October following the Rugby World Cup. “Johann van Graan is one of those coaches who is almost an amateur psychologist. They had so much talent in that back line but they weren’t playing together.

“I know having worked with the likes of Heyneke Meyer who Johann knows very well, it’s the putting in place a very simple structure that everyone can buy into. Steve Borthwick did it when he arrived at Leicester… when you have got a quality squad sometimes it’s simplifying it down, getting a bit of confidence and momentum, and then very quickly you can ramp things up and start to look like world beaters.

“Clearly, Bath have benefited massively from a couple of recent signings. Ollie Lawrence from Worcester was absolute gold dust and then the addition of Finn Russell, we all raised our eyebrows and went, ‘Really, Finn Russell, Johann van Graan, does that mix work?’ But I have been so impressed with Finn.

“We all thought he would come in and it would be the Finn show and it would be all about his little chips to himself and everything. He has just been the best game manager he could have been and added at the right moments to put in some of those miracle things we were expecting from Finn Russell.

“It is the way he has brought the best out of everyone else and almost his calmness has added to that. In previous seasons, when they were finishing near the bottom, there was almost like a panic or they would lose games at the end. He is just the sort of relaxed lad. Pressure doesn’t affect him and maybe that is rubbing off on some of those around him.”

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Kay’s praise for Saturday’s finalists cuts both ways as Northampton have been very easy on his eye as well. “Huge kudos, in particular to Sam Vesty who is one of the best coaches in England at the moment. If you look, the Chris Boyd influence is there because I have watched their attack and the big thing about them is how much time they have on the ball with their shoulders square. People don’t want to bite on them.

“The fear of playing against Northampton’s attack assists them because no one wants to jump in and make a tackle because they are so worried about the quality of the skill set, so it buys them more time and they are very comfortable on the ball in terms of knowing I have got to drag that defender to me and drag this defender from outside to create the space for the next part.

“All their skill execution is brilliant. That has come from the opposite way that I was just talking about with Johann. Boyd just let them play. That was their undoing for a couple of years, they were so good at attack but they would get caught out. But then this season, huge credit to Phil Dowson.

“He has pared that (approach) back the last couple of seasons really. The whole pre-season was about putting weight so that they could physically compete as well, so they have come from the opposite angle.

“They have come from a really complicated, all-out attack to paring that back a little. But what it has meant is their skill sets are well used to playing under pressure. They have learned the hard way how to play expansive rugby, so now when they get those opportunities to go they make the right decisions. It’s very difficult to stop them.”

That difficulty is why Kay is tipping Northampton – not Bath – this Saturday to become the fifth different club to win the league in the five seasons. “They are the most confident uncomfortable team at the moment,” he suggested.

“They would have preferred to have played Saracens in the semi-final and they would have preferred to play Bath in the final than Sale because Bath play more their style of rugby than Sale do.

“Also with Sale having gone to a final and lost last year, those scars that teams often need and that experience of playing in a big game and not winning and realising what you have got to do next time.

“There is pressure on Northampton to win because with Courtney (Lawes), Lewis Ludlam, and a couple of others leaving, it might be a hard recovery from that. So it just feels to me that they are the team.

“That Leinster performance [Champions Cup semi-final] was massive for them because give them another 10 minutes they could have well won that game. But just going toe-to-toe with one of Europe’s top teams in a big knockout game like that has given them that experience. It’s just a gut feeling. Where Bath sort of feel a little bit more like they have come up in the final stages, Northampton have been sat there all season.”

Back to how we started, what a gem of a competition the Premiership has been. “We want a bit of variation and it’s absolutely brilliant,” agreed Kay. “One of the things about Premiership rugby is Chris Boyd spoke about this a lot, it’s totally alien to come to a league where everyone plays different styles. Where he came from in New Zealand, they all play the same way in Super Rugby.

“What’s great is we have had Leicester win it playing a limited game plan when (Steve) Borthwick was in charge. We have Saracens with what they do. Exeter with what they do. Harlequins. They are all different styles that have come to the fore which means it’s not a boring league.

“But this year and why the final is so exciting is the game has shifted. Defence no longer wins you championships which is great and we are seeing two of the most deadly attacks that we have seen ever in the Premiership battling it out in the final.”

  • Watch Northampton Saints vs Bath Rugby in the Gallagher Premiership final this Saturday, live on TNT Sports 1 and discovery+ from 2pm.
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Mzilikazi 1 hours ago
Is Ireland versus South Africa a battle for the title of ‘world champions’?

Very good article, Nic, and I find agreement with what you write virtually 100%. I think this two mach series has increasingly become one which will be very difficult for Ireland to win. After the first game of the last 6N, I would have been very full of confidence taking on the Boks in SA. France beaten by a big margin in France, it looked as if Ireland had emerged in fine form from the World Cup, despite the very narrow loss to the AB’s. But after that game, a slide began, ending with the defeat to England. Ireland were very fortunate to win this years 6N ! And as you so fully expose, this has not been a good season for Leinster, or indeed, in my view, for any Irish province. The Leinster loos to the Bulls, and then Munster letting a glorious chance slip to the Glasgow Warriors down at Thomond. Man, that one will really hurt. And both Connacht and Ulster have at times looked very poor this seaso, bith heavily beaten on occassion. The loss of both Gibson Park and Keenan are huge blows, especially Gibson Park. And there is really only one clear class 10 in the touring party, Jack Crowley, and he is still a very young player learning his trade. If he goes down, heaven help Ireland. And in my view, Ireland do not have a good scrummaging front row, SA do, and in great depth too. But despite all this doom and gloom, I always believe my team can win. Not that they will win, just can ! Ireland will still field what is the best and most talented team overall that I have seen in my lifetime. But the coaching group will really have to step up, no awful decisions like the one made against the AB’s in the QF….keeping the totally spent and poorly performing(on the day) Sexton on for the full 80mins, leaving Crowley on the sidelines. Ireland should never have lost that game !

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S
Shaylen 4 hours ago
Is Ireland versus South Africa a battle for the title of ‘world champions’?

Ireland have all the tools required to hurt SA. They develop quick ball, hold onto the ball for long periods, stretch the game when its on, have powerful mobile forwards, a good kicking game and they can hold their own in the scrum. They also can force turnovers regularly and in general do well at the breakdown. When Munster, the Ospreys and Glasgow all won games in SA this year against the Bulls and Stormers they did just that and won. It is also the reason why Ireland won the game at the world cup last year. The problem for Ireland is that SA have all the tools required to hurt them as well and hurt them a great deal more than England did in the Six Nations. They are physical and powerful at the set piece, they rush up and counter the Irish attacking system and they can really attack the breakdown and slow your ball down. Their counterattacking threat is also a big weapon and they score many tries from turnover turning defence into offence in a second. Toulouse and the Bulls nailed Leinster in this way and Glasgow did the same thing to Munster. So the series will be really interesting because both sides are so good at countering each other. Interested to see what kind of surprises Tony Brown springs and how the SA game develops. Feel like SA have more potential to surprise Ireland but then a new coaching set up as well as the fact that Japanese and foreign based players tend to take about 5 to 6 weeks to get up to speed might work in Irelands favour. SA have shipped at least one game in 4 of the last 5 June/July test windows going back to 2018 for this exact reason.

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F
Flankly 6 hours ago
'Let them keep talking' - Mike Catt claps back over Bok remarks

The comments were reported weirdly. De Allende did say it would be war, but he said it amidst comments like “Ireland play such good footy”, and “they are so good at the breakdown”. He said that the Boks lost heavily to Ireland a few years back and that they felt the Irish press was dismissive of the Boks. I don’t recall that, but I suppose it is true, and that SA players would want to turn around that sentiment. The RWC loss to Ireland would naturally pour fuel on the fire. In short, it is a natural thing for passionate players like him to feel very strongly about the goal of registering a convincing series win against Ireland. There is really nothing to see here. As an aside, the SA team shouldn’t be too self-righteous about this kind of a situation. Recall that in 2004, after SA won the Ireland series in SA, Jake White noted that no more than two Irish players were good enough for selection in his Bok side. "Considering the facts, I think only two of their players would be included in the Bok team - O'Driscoll (centre) and maybe one of the locks. How could we have lost against the Irish?" O’Driscoll disagreed and said that it was close, and Ireland were just tired. My Irish friends were pretty incensed by the comments, quite rightly. And I am sure it was part of the energy that drove them to some famous wins against the Boks. The Etzebeth thing was a little different. I think he was just not hearing what was being said. It is not that unusual for someone to say “We will see you in the final”. Of course it is a statement of confidence, which every team should have, but it is also a compliment. I think there was a cultural fly-by, in which a “see you soon” comment was taken to mean “we will beat you again”. But it was a good story, and a convenient clickbaity headline. I don’t think anyone is intentionally trying to rile up anything. But if you interview a Bok player and prod them about their passion wrt the Ireland tour, you are likely to hear some pretty heartfelt words. And so you should.

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