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

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

The Red Hot Chili Peppers are blasting out of Bath’s gym, the booming bass-heavy lick breaking the rural quiet of the Somerset hills. And while no-one around these parts is pretending that Bath have been anything like spicy enough over the past 18 months (some might even say 18 years), there are tentative signs that the West Country side is beginning to find its groove.

A new no-nonsense coaching set-up is bedding in nicely amid the elegantly manicured lawns of the club’s Farleigh House HQ. Graduates from the club’s academy are flourishing, a fact vividly reinforced recently by Will Butt’s sensational last-play try to beat reigning champions Leicester. And the club has been hyperactive in making some acute mid-season signings in the wake of the buyer’s market caused by Worcester and Wasps’ collapse.

Head of rugby Johann van Graan is a picture of quiet authority and unflappability as he sits by the mullioned windows that overlook acres of rolling Mendip countryside. Outside, a buggy silently zips by laden with balls and water bottles.  As the former Munster boss calmly reflects on his first 100 days in the Premiership, it is just about possible to forget what a chaotic mess he inherited.

The 2021-22 campaign was one of trial and error for Bath – primarily error. Well-travelled rugby fixer Ed Griffiths was parachuted in as chairman midway through the season and lasted in the role marginally longer than Liz Truss was to last as Prime Minister. There was talk of disagreement and disharmony. Matt Banahan publicly called on Bath to quit the Gothic turrets of Farleigh and rediscover its city roots. The club was struggling to finish second in games, culminating in a record-breaking 64-0 omnishambles at Gloucester and a last-day-of-the-season horror show at Worcester, which condemned them to the wooden spoon.

Cover the season in Tipp-Ex and never speak of it again, said club legend Banahan.

The man tasked with turning the page and writing a new chapter was van Graan, whose pre-season prescription was to focus on the fundamentals worthy of his South African pedigree: improve fitness, rediscover a defensive spine, and become hard to beat again.

Johan van Graan
Johann van Graan has quietly set about improving Bath’s standing in the Premiership (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

It wasn’t that losing had become a habit for Bath; it was that losing via an eye-watering number of tries had become a habit. (For the Chili Peppers fans out there, you might even say Bath had become prone to Give It Away – a track presumably not on the gym playlist.)

To fix a broken defensive system, van Graan brought with him his trusted lieutenant from Munster, JP Ferreira. Personable but direct, Ferreira’s favourite hobby is hunting and putting the captured meat on a braai. Asked at a pre-season media day whether he’d consider giving out a Monday morning prize to the weekend’s best defender, the South African unblinkingly said he wasn’t in the business of rewarding people for doing their jobs.

It is an uncompromising approach that appears to be working. At first this season it appeared to be the same old story, but as the campaign has progressed Bath’s defensive structure has noticeably tightened. In their opening six league matches Bath conceded an average of 34 points per game. In their last three – during which they have pieced together a mini-winning streak – they averaged just 14. Ferreira wants his side to be gathering under the sticks no more than twice in a match, and the graph is starting to flash green rather than red in that regard.

We win, we lose, we’ve got to show constant improvement throughout the season. We said we wanted to be tough to beat and I believe we’ve shown that.

Johan van Graan, Bath head of rugby

When did the rehabilitation begin to show itself? Arguably, it was before Bath even won a game this campaign. It was on October 15, during a trip to north London. The Blue, Black and White may have been beaten by the Men in Black 37-31, but they were just one play away from beating Saracens, the Premiership’s form side. There was enough spirit on show to suggest that the waters at Bath were starting to flow more smoothly.

Three league wins on the spin have followed. First Northampton at The Rec, then Newcastle away, and most recently the rousing last-minute victory over Leicester. What an atmosphere there was on the banks of the River Avon that night. And why not? The Bath supporters, to their credit, had grimly continued to turn up during the wallopings and the whimperings. Now they had a moment of catharsis and that most precious of feelings in sport as in life: hope.

Not that van Graan was swept up in the emotion of the occasion. “I’m not going to get carried away,” he says underneath the chandeliers of the Farleigh meeting room. “We win, we lose, we’ve got to show constant improvement throughout the season. We said we wanted to be tough to beat and I believe we’ve shown that. There will be ups and downs. We’ll know at the end of the season where we’re at and where we need to change and get better.”

Orlando Bailey
Orlando Bailey is one of Bath’s bright young things but he is overseen by Jon Mallard, a grandee of the old guard (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

The tendency to self-destruct has been defused. That at least is what van Graan believes, based on the improvements he’s witnessed in his side’s kicking game and in their defending. Underpinning that has been an improvement in conditioning, partly driven by the investment in a new gym that van Graan made a condition of him joining the club.

“We are becoming better at not playing against ourselves, specifically in our own half. We are exiting pretty well. I spoke about the word ‘pragmatic’ when I started and defensively we’ve got a good system in place now. And we’ve worked so hard on our fitness.”

Among those working hard as we talk is Orlando Bailey. The young fly-half is the last one to come in from morning practice. Under the gaze of kicking coach Jon Callard, Bailey is fine-tuning his goal-kicking. But Callard is no ordinary Bath coach. He is a Bath coach who knows what it’s like to win the most-prized silverware in the club’s history, the 1998 European Cup, when he scored all of Bath’s 19 points in the victory over Brive. On that day, Bailey had yet to be born.

Callard is a link to Bath’s glory days, while Bailey, 21, educated at the local boys’ secondary school, is its future. The chap zipping about on the buggy is going to be busy with the number of kicks Bailey fires at the posts.

Bath’s coaches appear to be a collection of complementary personalities and backgrounds: intense and easy-going; well-travelled but with a strain of local connection; yin and yang.

Another link to Bath’s past is attack coach Joe Maddock. The New Zealander has a laidback demeanour and banters with the players just like he did more than a decade ago when he was a fans’ favourite at The Rec himself. But have a quiet word and he’ll tell you he’s still ferociously competitive and strives to find ways to give himself the edge when taking part in fitness challenges against the players.

Bath’s coaches appear to be a collection of complementary personalities and backgrounds: intense and easy-going; well-travelled but with a strain of local connection; yin and yang. They are also forensically organised. “We’re working towards the date of May 28 at the back end of the season,” explains van Graan. “We’ve literally mapped out every single day up until then.”

But it is not only in the coaching department where Bath have made sweeping changes. Even more recently, the club has recruited swiftly and cannily to pick up a whole suite of players left temporarily high and dry by their clubs’ financial implosion.

Both the England flag and the Bath flag are fluttering over Farleigh House, and it feels appropriate given Bath’s role in providing a second chance to so many players from across the English game who have been hit by the trauma of sudden redundancy. Wasps’ Alfie Barbeary has joined on a long-term deal alongside a whole platoon of former Worcester Warriors, not least former skipper Ted Hill, Ollie Lawrence, Fergus Lee-Warner, Valeriy Morozov, Billy Searle and Jamie Shillcock.

The mid-season influx of Warriors is surreal, not least for the players. In the case of fullback Shillcock, one month you’re scoring a hat-trick against Bath on the final day of the season, a few months later you’re helping Bath beat the reigning champions.

Cameron Redpath, Bath
Smiles have returned to the terraces in recent months at Bath (Photo by Steven Paston/PA Images via Getty Images)

Bath’s recruitment method has been swift and savvy, not least from the standpoint of providing existing players with intense competition for places and contracts. But it was needs-must to a certain extent. With an extensive injury list including key figures such as Charlie Ewels, Sam Underhill, Beno Obano, Josh McNally, Will Muir and GJ van Velze, Bath were struggling to run meaningful training sessions in October.

As the Chili Peppers continue to emanate from the gym, so Bath have acquired a booming human bass groove of their own in the form of Ollie Lawrence. With his hustling, hungry ball-carrying, Lawrence has been a revelation at centre since his arrival. He is, as one of his team-mates put it to me, “a bit of a freak, really”.

“Ollie has made a massive difference and it’s certainly sharpened competition in the midfield,” says van Graan. “Ollie is very straightforward. He wanted clarity when we met the first day and I gave him clarity with regards to how I see his role and what I expect of him, and he’s responded extremely well. If you look at some of the linebreaks he’s made and decisions he’s made on both sides of the ball, he’s got a very good feeling and understanding for the game. He’s very powerful in a very short distance, has a very good hand-off, very good feet. And he’s very decisive in his actions. At his age he will only get better. As a person, he really wanted to come and make a difference here and in a very short space of time he’s done that.”

But van Graan is quick to emphasise that it is not just Lawrence who has jolted Bath into a better place. The rest of the Warriors cavalry – and their personal tales of confusion and betrayal – have also stirred the squad’s sinews and spirit.

As players we all knew it was going to snap and change for us. We’ve all been working so hard to get better week on week on week. We trusted it was going to come and it has come, and now it’s about staying on course.

Miles Reid, Bath backrow

“The Worcester guys have been so grateful for the opportunities they’ve had. They’ve got a second shot and not everybody has that and they’ve grasped it with both hands. The most impressive thing is how they’ve fitted in and how they just want to make Bath better. Some of them had been at Worcester their whole lives. We spoke about it as a group here and imagined it happened to some of our Bath guys who have been at Bath for the whole of their lives.”

Among those who have called Bath home since they were a boy is Miles Reid, touted by those close to the club as a potential captain of the future. He is late for our interview due to a gym session and arrives breathing hard. So hard, in fact, that it feels slightly unfair to put a question to him.

“As players we all knew it was going to snap and change for us,” says Reid, clicking his fingers as he reflects on the mini-revival. “We’ve all been working so hard to get better week on week on week. We trusted it was going to come and it has come, and now it’s about staying on course.”

The next test of that course being maintained is against Harlequins at The Rec on Friday, December 2. The maul has become one of Bath’s most damaging weapons this season, and if it can fire then Quins themselves will be tested. Reid also feels that the squad’s improved conditioning – the flanker has himself put on three kilos of muscle but has retained his speed – is making the team more competitive. The addition of wise, older heads such as van Velze and Dave Attwood over the summer has also helped the game understanding of younger players such as himself.

Despite their travails, Bath still have a loyal fanbase who have stuck with the club (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

But for Reid, like van Graan, it is the unexpected arrivals’ stories that are most inspiring.

“They were fighting for their careers at one point, and while a lot of them have been signed they had to fight for that,” he says. “You never know when your last day of playing rugby is going to be or when your last opportunity to play for the club is going to be, so that in itself has raised the standards here and made us more hungry.”

Van Graan has inherited a tough job at Bath, perhaps the toughest role of recent times in English club rugby. Some big names before him have not delivered the silverware that still eludes owner Bruce Craig, who bought the club in 2010: Sir Ian McGeechan, Gary Gold, Mike Ford, Todd Blackadder… It is quite a list.

Put yourselves in the shoes of those at Worcester and Wasps. Realise it could have been you – whatever club you’re at. Be grateful and thankful for what we have, and pull tight around the people it has happened to.

Johan van Graan

But, as hungry for success as he is, the Bath head of rugby knows that these uncertain times for the English game require an attitude that it broader than self-interested glory. Empathy rather than a stance of beggar-thy-neighbour is necessary.

“Put yourselves in the shoes of those at Worcester and Wasps,” says van Graan. “Realise it could have been you – whatever club you’re at. Be grateful and thankful for what we have, and pull tight around the people it has happened to. There are 11 clubs still standing and we’ve got to look after each other. That’s certainly been my message since I became aware of the financial issues. We are all in rugby together. You can’t play against yourself. You need other guys to be standing as well, so we have to look after each other in the Premiership.”

With that he’s gone, sticking to the daily plan that maps out every detail of his life and the club’s until May 28. And for those who need to check their diaries, the Premiership final takes place on May 27.


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