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The 'we are growing' Bath mantra at odds with a 25-point hammering

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by PA)

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It was rather apt on Saturday that the media conference auditorium at the Aviva Stadium is a sorry sight these days, its furniture and pathways decorated with bundles of black and amber hazard tape to ensure no one dares get too close to the people occupying the top table in these socially distant times. The only surprise was that the tape wasn’t wrapped around the Bath contingent when they ventured in to say their hazardous piece in the aftermath of yet another weekend pelting, this time in the Champions Cup as opposed to the Gallagher Premiership.   

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It’s ten Ls now on the bounce for the English side and six minutes of listening to Stuart Hooper and Charlie Ewels in Dublin left you wondering if this duo is in denial about the crisis their club is in, this latest loss excused by some youth getting its Champions Cup fling and that this type of a 45-20 beating can somehow only be beneficial to Bath in the long run.  

Here’s the rub, though: When you are slap bang at the heart of a crisis, talking about aspirational benefits was quite the stretch when the bruising reality was that your team had just taken an embarrassing shellacking, conceding the four-try bonus point to Leinster as early as the 25th minute in a seven-two try hammering massaged by a late consolation score.

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Ex-All Blacks prop John Afoa guests on the latest RugbyPass Offload
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Ex-All Blacks prop John Afoa guests on the latest RugbyPass Offload

You can understand the excuse-making coming from Hooper. His two-and-a-half-year stint as director of rugby is reaching the critical stage where club owner Bruce Craig could justifiably call a sudden halt and go with a different boss-man, hence Hooper’s narrative in trying to spin some positivity out of another wretched afternoon. 

But you’d expect a bit more from skipper Ewels than to also dwell on this youth factor rather than accept that what was generally produced wasn’t up to scratch and should be called out. Ewels even began his spiel by suggesting there was no connection between the abject Premiership form of Bath and a loss in Europe, claiming it was somehow a clean slate taking on an Irish side in Champions Cup round one when the reality was the defeat was yet another sobering loss in a sequence that will ultimately have heads rolling if it doesn’t end any time soon. That’s the grim reality in this business of sport.  

“This was coming into a new competition,” he deflected. “Domestically we are not where we want to be but in this competition, it was a clean slate, an opportunity for players to get experience and play a side that is as close as you are going to get to a Test match team in club rugby, an international stadium against a near enough international side.

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“The performance didn’t quite make it today but it was better than the performance we had in the first game of the season, so we are growing. It’s a long time coming but it is about keeping the focus on that, which is easy to say and hard to do. But when you bring it back down to the little things, how we are trying to play, how we are trying to step forward, that is how things start to push on and start to click. 

“That [Leinster] is effectively a Test side and it would be fair to say we had the upper hand in the scrum at times, around the lineout and set-piece which in international rugby is massive. But then you saw the difference in quality around some of the open play stuff, the breakdown, their ability to hold and move the ball and their decision making. 

“So there are massive steps forward and there are other parts there where you have just got to hold your hands up, get humble and go, ‘How can we get better because it is coming again (with La Rochelle) next week?'”

Ewels was speaking under the impression that painful losses in Europe can be invaluable. He had been beaten up before by Leinster, Bath humbled at the RDS in January 2016 in the Champions Cup. But losing again in Dublin guarantees this particular Bath XV nothing given that the club has now won just five of its 21 Champions Cup games since that match Ewels referenced from nearly six years ago. That’s quite the pitiful record.

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“They will be better for it, they will learn,” claimed Ewels about the Bath youth that was painfully on the receiving end on Saturday. “I came here as a 20-year-old and played against a very good Leinster side then and there are lessons I learned that I still hold with me now. 

“They will be better for it. They will understand now when we talk about breakdown in training, they will understand that is why we have got to be at that level. They will understand when we talk about our decision making, when to run, when to kick, that is why we are saying those things because if you want to push on and play at that level that is how important those things are.”

What of Hooper, whose set-up seems to need more than an elusive defence coach to sort out the messy situation that is getting messier by the week due to the reputation-damaging results?

“It is very important from a player and club perspective we understand the context of where we are right now. It doesn’t cover over any of that as a performance and as a result, but there were lots of people playing their first-ever time in Europe which is a big step,” he reckoned, hoping his squad can somehow pick itself up with crack French side La Rochelle coming to The Rec next weekend.   

“There were some people making their club debut, six people making their European debut, and then you have got seasoned internationals who want to be in this competition consistently and putting themselves in a place to win it, so there is a whole range of people and across the group, they will pull each other through and pick each other up. 

“The energy of some of the young guys who came on was outstanding. Similarly with the leadership of some of our experienced guys, and we need all that again in the home game versus La Rochelle next week.”

All that and much, much more by the sounds of it.

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