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FEATURE Jon Callard: 'It'll be just like the old days. Last one off to Twickenham turn the light off'

Jon Callard: 'It'll be just like the old days. Last one off to Twickenham turn the light off'
2 weeks ago

The last time Bath won the Premiership in 1996, the club’s full-back Jon Callard wore a 16 on his back.

The anomaly was caused by a superstitious tradition. The club stopped fielding a No 13 after the death of a player wearing the jersey in a game in 1919. But if the offshoot of the quirky numbering was to give the impression Bath had an extra man on the field, that felt pretty accurate at the time.

Bath were English rugby’s invincibles. They mopped up league titles like a blue, black and white super sopper and had an even greedier relish for the domestic cup, which took up near-permanent residence at The Rec.

Four times in the space of eight years – including that triumphant ‘96 season – the insatiable West Country winners combined their appetite for both to complete the double.

Bath celebrate
Bath’s 1994 victory was one of 10 domestic cup triumphs in 13 years from 1984 to 1996 (Photo David Rogers/Allsport via Getty Images)

First under Jack Rowell and then Brian Ashton, Bath and their charismatic cast of ballerinas and bruisers – Jeremy Guscott, Stuart Barnes, Gareth ‘Coochie’ Chilcott and the rest – swept all before them.

Winning was addictive and a lot of fun.

“Jack always had a saying: ‘We’re going to train hard, we’re going to play hard and we’re going to party hard’,” said Callard.

“The game is all about medals and memories and we were pretty successful with both.

We had a strategic plan whereby Cooch would distract Jack while Barnsey would nip off into his wine cellar and take his best wines. There were a lot of good times.

“It was great to win the league but back then for us and our supporters, the cup was definitely the highlight of the season and we won at Twickenham more times than not. Driving back to Bath on the motorway back to The Rec, passing the supporters tooting their horns, made the day so special.

“The day after the cup final Jack would always throw a bash for the players and the wives and girlfriends at his house.

“We had a strategic plan whereby Cooch would distract Jack while Barnsey would nip off into his wine cellar and take his best wines. There were a lot of good times.”

The Bath secret was to harness the power of collective personality to create a monster. They were spiky, combative and intimidating but razor-sharp when it came to rugby intellect.

Stuart Barnes
Fly-half Stuart Barnes played a pivotal role in Bath’s glory years (Photo Dave Rogers/Allsport via Getty Images)

“If you look at the sort of people who were involved, they were driven to succeed. A lot of them succeeded in what they did after rugby too,” said Callard.

“It was a brutally hard school but the standards were set high by the players and they were pushed on by some really good conflict coaching. By that I don’t mean we would be fighting with each other – although that did happen behind closed doors with the players sometimes – I mean the players would challenge the coaches and the coaches would challenge the players. That would drive the whole thing upwards.”

When, a week after wrapping up the league, Bath edged out Leicester in a ‘96 cup final infamous for Neil Back’s push on referee Steve Lander, it felt like the conveyor belt of success would never stop.

But 28 years later, as Bath prepare to march on Twickenham again, they are still waiting for the next league title.

Bath got lost in professionalism. Maybe with money coming in, sometimes players forgot the value of the shirt. You can have the pay cheque and all the trappings but when you knuckle down to it, rugby is always all about the team environment

Callard’s take on the yawning gap, as a Bath titan who scored more than 2,000 points in his decade at full-back and then coached at the club in the early noughties, is instructive.

While professionalism allowed others to play catch-up on the market leaders who had blazed a trail in the just-about-still-amateur era when it came to sports science and recruitment, it also saw Bath move away from what had made it so strong.

“I think the club was more professional in the amateur era than in the professional era,” he said.

“Bath got lost in professionalism. Maybe with money coming in, sometimes players forgot the value of the shirt. You can have the pay cheque and all the trappings but when you knuckle down to it, rugby is always all about the team environment. You fill the shirt, you work hard, you play your part for the team and then you pass it onto someone else.

“Bath was a shirt that you fought for. That might have got lost. But Johann van Graan has got its value back.”

Johann van Graan
Van Graan has taken Bath from bottom of the Premiership to the grand final in the space of two seasons (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

The hard graft and humility that underpins the ethos of Bath’s head of rugby has contributed to a remarkable upswing in his two years at the club.

He has needed players too of course. If Finn Russell’s arrival and the ‘vulture’ signings of Ollie Lawrence, Ted Hill and Alfie Barbeary from rival clubs that went to the wall have been important, Callard believes the coaches the South African has brought in have been just as significant in the revival.

“Bath have been fortunate in a sense that the sad demise of other clubs has allowed them to profit,” he said.

“But I would say that Johann’s best recruitment has been that of Lee Blackett and Richard Blaze in terms of the coaching they have added.

The game has moved on massively… but it’s still about the badge and the history and all those players who have gone before, not the size of your bank balance.

“There is that conflict coaching again at Bath from both sides now with everyone working towards one common goal.”

Up until six weeks ago, Callard was part of the Bath coaching team too as a kicking specialist. The timing of his exit was unfortunate given what lies ahead this weekend but his latest spell with the club he holds so dear ended amicably, he insists. And not before confirming to him that Bath are resolutely back on track.

“I was very lucky to have 18 months with the club again and I’m delighted for everybody that has helped put the club back on the map,” he said. “I saw at first hand the club moving towards where it was in the 90s.

“The game has moved on massively. There’s so many specialist staff giving so much detailed knowledge to the players now.

Bath players celebrate
Bath fans will head down the M4 in their thousands on Saturday after their semi-final win over Sale (Photo Patrick Khachfe/Getty Images)

“But it’s still about the badge and the history and all those players who have gone before, not the size of your bank balance.

“Johann is an amazing character and he has done a great job restoring that connection and the connection with the fans.

“The supporters aren’t just going to The Rec for a day out now which might have been the case when Bath were bottom of the league two years ago; they are going because the rugby is back to how it used to be. The emotion around The Rec is what it was like in ‘96.

“It will be just like the old days on Saturday. The city will be empty. Last one off to Twickenham turn the light off.”

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