Those of you seduced by rock ‘n’ roll folklore will be familiar with the story of Robert Johnson; the bluesman who purportedly sold his soul to the devil. For a while he was little but a pest, showing up at gigs in the Mississippi Delta, and angling to sit in with grizzled veterans like Son House. His playing was average and his potential limited.
Then he disappeared without trace. A year or so later, he returned and proceeded to wipe the floor with everybody. The level of his improvement was baffling. His guitar playing was technically astounding, and his voice had matured beyond comprehension. The story goes that he sold his soul in exchange for these earthly gifts. The less fanciful explanation is that he went away with a single-minded determination to improve and worked bloody hard to achieve it.
I’m not suggesting Bath tapped him up for Beelzebub’s number – Johnson’s been dead for 70 years – but when they re-emerged from their Covid-enforced hibernation, Bath had transformed from a ninth-placed Premiership side in search of an identity to a powerful, bristling juggernaut capable of bulldozing their opponents into submission. Each and every one of their players seemed to have grown two inches, and took to the field with a strut and a swagger that had been lacking pre-lockdown. It took them all the way to the play-offs.
Their lineout coach, Luke Charteris – who at 6ft 10in doesn’t need to grow any taller – believes the transformation was borne of hard work of the good old-fashioned, sleeves-rolled-up variety. “The boys were unbelievable with what they did in their own time. The motivation to keep training and the discipline they showed was incredible,” said Charteris. “When we came back in after four or five months, they were in unbelievable physical condition. That allowed us to crack on with rugby straight away.”
While the sun was bouncing off the honeycombed Cotswold stone of their deserted Farleigh Hungerford training base, the Bath players were holed up in garages, spare rooms and in back gardens, pumping iron and indulging in lung-busting solo sessions. “If we’d had to spend those four weeks trying to get those boys back up to speed conditioning-wise, it would have had a massive knock-on effect in what we could have achieved in that second ‘pre-season’. That gave a us a massive advantage to really kick on from there,” added Charteris.
The message was, ‘As soon as we’re back, we’re going for that Premiership final’. It was a single goal – and the boys committed fully to it.
What was most surprising was the commitment across the board. Not too long ago, it may have been overlooked, or at least tolerated, if some of the front rowers returned looking a little more corpulent, a little wider of girth, but they were as ripped and lean as the backs. Charteris was dumbfounded: “It was incredible. They’d been asked to go running in a park or on a treadmill in their house. Some of them had a couple of dumbbells lying around, a few of them had a squat rack. They got on with whatever they had.”
The isolation we’ve all felt during the past seven months has seen many of us retreat into our own mental space. For a professional sports team who rely on interaction, feedback and camaraderie, the enforced lockdown could easily have frayed those bonds. With Bath, the opposite happened. “From Hoops (Stuart Hooper) and Hats (Neal Hatley), down to the senior players, they’ve had a massive impact on that. It could have been easy to drift off into your own little bubble and lose focus but, with the technology nowadays, we were able to communicate really well and keep them focused,” said Charteris. “The message was, ‘As soon as we’re back, we’re going for that Premiership final’. It was a single goal – and the boys committed fully to it.”
But Bath’s transformation was as much about brains as brawn. The biceps may have been a little bigger, the quads more defined, but while the players were honing their physiques, the coaches were sharpening their tools.
According to Charteris, there was a conscious shift in philosophy. “We had a massive amount of time to reflect on what we’d done in the first half of that season, what was working for us, what wasn’t,” he said.
“Neal Hatley coming in as head coach over that period changed a lot. We had new players coming in as well that we could shape our game around. Ben Spencer’s skill-set and his kicking game allowed us to tweak things and play around his strengths. We definitely changed our approach in terms of our exits, and what we wanted as a forward pack. The set-piece dominance that we were trying to go after, the close-quarter carries and that sort of stuff. We’ve got a young pack, but we’ve got some quality athletes in there, some big strong boys, and they’ve got some decent skills on them as well.”
Now he’s got that first cap out of the way, hopefully he’ll just push and put a lot of pressure on Jamie George because his all-round game is unbelievable.
Charteris on Bath hooker Tom Dunn
Seven of Bath’s starting pack are now full internationals, which reflects their evolution into a bristling, snarling juggernaut. The Bath scrum and maul have become serious offensive weapons, and their overall tight game is second only to Exeter’s in terms of its close-quarter brutality. The likes of Charlie Ewels, Sam Underhill and Taulupe Faletau were already international regulars, but Beno Obano, Will Stuart and, notably, Tom Dunn have been elevated to the England squad by virtue of their post-lockdown form.
Dunn’s emotional family phone call from the Rome touchline after winning his first cap against Italy went viral, touching the hearts of rugby fans across the globe regardless of nationality. “I’m so happy for him. He’s a quality guy, an unbelievable player and he’s had to wait a long time for his opportunity,” said Charteris.
“He has been playing consistently good rugby for a number of years and, for whatever reasons, he has missed out. Those sort of things start playing on your mind, and it starts getting harder and harder, but to be fair to him he just kept digging in and working hard. Now he’s got that first cap out of the way, hopefully he’ll just push and put a lot of pressure on Jamie George because his all-round game is unbelievable.”
As a player, Charteris was an undemonstrative kind of bloke. Impossible to ignore, given his giant dimensions, but adept at fading into the background off the field. Once he crossed the whitewash, his all-out aggression, his hunger, and an almost kamikaze attitude to his personal safety belied the nature of the more thoughtful, considered personality off it. It’s this persona that drives his coaching philosophy.
As a player, you reach a certain level of understanding of the game but, as a coach, you really have to raise that level.
Bath lineout coach Luke Charteris
“When I was a player I was never a big screamer or shouter, and that’s not who I am as a coach. If I was to try doing that, and flipping and changing, the boys would lose all respect and take the piss. It just wouldn’t be genuine. Obviously you’re not on the player WhatsApp groups or the social groups any more, you’re not on the piss with the boys anymore, but the relationships I had with the boys when I was playing haven’t changed much. I understand how they operate, work and think – and that’s really helped me in terms of progressing my coaching.”
So you won’t find Charteris ranting and raving, barking orders or perfecting his death stare. But you will find him hunkered over his laptop in the twilight hours, searching ceaselessly for those extra ‘one-percenters’ that will help turn this Bath side from contenders into champions.
“As a player, you reach a certain level of understanding of the game but, as a coach, you really have to raise that level,” he said. “As a player, my main focus was the lineout – and as a lineout coach that remains a huge part of it – but your whole game understanding has to get so much better as a coach.
“My understanding of kicking tactics now is on a whole other level. In hindsight, if I’d had a better understanding of that kind of thing as a player, it would have helped massively because I certainly see the game in a different light now.”
It’s that perspective that helps him tend towards patience when considering the current plight of the Welsh national side. A six-game losing streak, a worst Six Nations finish since 2007, and the shock departure of two key members of coaching staff has raised the hysteria level to red hot among a fan base not known for its forbearance.
Not just Gats, but the whole backroom staff, it was just ingrained in the boys, every single thing was ingrained in terms of how we wanted to play. You knew what a training day was down to a tee -and it didn’t really change over the 12 years.
Charteris on Wales changing their playing style
Charteris – who played under four different coaches during his 74-cap career – understands that a new regime, with a new philosophy, needs time – particularly if the predecessor was there for 12 years as Warren Gatland was. “Not just Gats, but the whole backroom staff, it was just ingrained in the boys, every single thing was ingrained in terms of how we wanted to play. You knew what a training day was down to a tee -and it didn’t really change over the 12 years he was there. It was so consistent in terms of what was expected from you as a player,” said Charteris.
While modern players are coached to respond to what’s happening in front of them, human nature dictates that when the going gets tough, you revert to what you know best. And when that philosophy is as deeply embedded as the ‘Gatland way’ was, it can prove an irresistible comfort zone.
“When you’re in the 60th minute, and you’re knackered and under pressure, you revert to type. You know what the guy next to you is meant to be doing and vice versa. When these things have slightly changed, it’s going to take time to understand the nuances,” said Charteris.
“Coming straight in to a truncated campaign like that, with the limited training time they’ve had was always going to be challenging. The beauty of this Autumn Nations Cup is that they’ve got a good block of time with this squad and I expect to see them stamp their identity on it over the next few weeks.”
The misery of the Six Nations defeat by Scotland overshadowed what should have been a momentous occasion for Alun Wyn Jones, as he broke Richie McCaw’s world record for international appearances. Charteris partnered Jones in Wales’ boiler house on dozens of occasions. Their debuts were only 19 months apart, but Charteris was forced to call time on his distinguished career more than a year ago because his body was “falling to pieces”. As a contemporary of Jones’, he finds it increasingly surreal that he continues to endure.
There’s never been a drop-off in his performance. He hasn’t had peaks and troughs. Every single game, he’s always performing to that level and I can’t see it stopping.
Charteris on Alun Wyn Jones
“You just take it for granted that whenever a campaign rolls around, he’s the first name on the teamsheet,” he said. “From the moment he came through, he had this incredible desire, he pushed himself so hard in training and set an almost impossibly high standard himself.
“If you break it down, there are three separate international blocks every year. To get up for those three times a year for 14 years is astonishing. There’s never been a drop-off in his performance. He hasn’t had peaks and troughs. Every single game, he’s always performing to that level and I can’t see it stopping. I genuinely can’t. Until he decides he has had enough, he’ll keep going and will push on for the Lions next year. And if he wants to, he’ll push on for another World Cup.”
There’s no question that Jones’s National Treasure status is sealed, but to many he remains an enigma. An intensely private man, whose refusal to acknowledge his innumerable achievements is borderline perverse. Charteris insists it was ever thus.
“That’s his prerogative. He’s always wanted to keep his private life private – and I’ve got a lot of respect for that,” he said. “The level of player he is, he could have easily pimped himself out to the press a whole lot more than he has done. But that’s the type of guy he is. That’s why he’s such a good captain – because it’s all about the rugby, the performance and the team. The personal accolades, he’s not that bothered about.
“Off the field, he’s a quality guy. I’ve got so much time for him as a bloke. He’s a family man, who’s good fun to be around. He’s definitely not as intense off the field as on it. He’s learnt how to chill out and switch off – and that has to be be a big reason why he’s still going.”
Charteris is also still going strong but, as a young coach, he’s ploughing a different furrow. Bath’s new season begins on Saturday with a trip to Newcastle. The man once described by Mike Phillips (not one given to compliments) as one of the best he has ever shared a field with, is hoping his coaching career will be as long and successful as his playing one.
More from Ross Harries
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