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FEATURE Revitalised Bath have 'puncher's chance' in European quest

Revitalised Bath have 'puncher's chance' in European quest
6 months ago

Where are they now, those armour-clad centurions, striding through Bordeaux, en route for Stade Lescure, a severe bout of chewed fingernails and, eventually, agonisingly, thrillingly, glory? That was 25 years ago and even if the Roman Empire did last a tad longer, Bath RFC was also to suffer the indignity of crumbling after a long period of dominance.

But, and whisper it gently for it has been whispered before only for dreams to turn to dust, Bath look to be in reasonable shape for a tilt at honours. They go into this season’s Investec Champions Cup with credible prospects and even if that sort of qualified acclaim is hardly the most ringing of endorsements, at least Johann van Graan’s side are in the conversation. Who would have thought, as Andy Nicol fumbled under the posts and Jon Callard kept swinging that deadly boot of his, that deflation and under-achievement would so often be the prevailing talk in the following years? It’s been a tale of woe on the banks of the Avon.

Mark Regan, <a href=
Ieuan Evans and Mike Catt celebrate” width=”1200″ height=”800″ /> Bath’s historic 1998 European triumph capped a trophy-laden 15-year spell in the club’s history (Photo Dave Rogers/Getty Images)

After such a lengthy period in the doldrums, shamefully twice coming close to relegation, saved only by a technicality 18 months ago, small steps towards some sort of accomplishment are to be noted, if not yet applauded. When all the horses are only just approaching the starting stalls, it is easy to be considered a prospect.

Bath open their campaign against Ulster at The Rec – still quaint, still evocative, still inadequate, open to the elements and still due to be replaced with a spanking new stadium, a promise that might finally be realised just as all those pledges of a bright new future for the team are supposed, yet again, to come to fruition.

This is followed by a game against Cardiff at the Arms Park, a fixture resonant of respective one-time grandees of the club game fallen by the wayside. With Racing 92 and Toulouse also to be played in Pool 2, Bath have their work cut out if they are to top the group. Qualifying for the much-welcomed round of 16 is another matter in this head-scratching, tweaked format. Such a goal is Bath’s minimum objective.

Bath had strong leadership on and off the field, a no-nonsense sense of direction, hard-edged and ruthless, assured enough in their own capabilities to berate each other if things slipped below a certain standard

There was a time when whatever generation of Bath player you were interviewing would roll their eyes and state that the past achievements of the club were just that and ought not to be brought into present-day reckoning. That defence mechanism was, and remains, piffle.

The qualities that made Bath pre-eminent in the latter days of amateurism – 10 domestic Cups, six league titles and, stretching into the professional era, that first European Cup win by a British side – hold true now if you were to put together a DNA profile for a champion club. They had strong leadership on and off the field, a no-nonsense sense of direction, hard-edged and ruthless, assured enough in their own capabilities to berate each other if things slipped below a certain standard, a holistic blend of exceptional talent, be it the grunt of Gareth Chilcott, the abrasiveness of a Roger Spurrell, the footballing intellect of a Jon Hall and ever onwards through Stuart Barnes, Jeremy Guscott, Simon Halliday, Tony Swift and so many more.

Manager Jack Rowell was charismatic yet enigmatic, part strategic guru, part back-seat driver, insightful enough to recognise that his players on the field knew better than he did and let them get on with it.

Johann van Graan
Johann van Graan stabilised Bath last term after they finished bottom the season before, and they are currently in the Premiership’s top two (Photo Bob Bradford – CameraSport via Getty Images)

So, how do this current crop stack up?

Finally, Bath look to have sound management in Van Graan, who has brought to the party the same sort of South African hard-headedness and empathetic values that infused the Springboks’ World Cup-winning campaign. The former Munster head coach came in with either the easiest or the most difficult job in the game. If the Premiership had not been ring-fenced just before the end of the 2021-22 seasons, Bath would have been in the mire after the most horrendous of campaigns.

At rock bottom, Van Graan could do no worse, although he might have been a bit twitchy at the roll-call of his predecessors, the likes of Ian McGeechan, John Connolly, Mike Ford (who did take them to a Premiership final) Todd Blackadder, all of whom had come in with great expectations only to succumb to whatever curse has been cast over The Rec and the club’s lavish training complex at Farleigh House.
Russell has settled quickly and effectively, bringing so much out of Ollie Lawrence alongside. The form of the centre has been central to Bath’s impressive showing of late

Bath do look to have a well-balanced roster of players, particularly in that all-important middle section of the field where the combination of Alfie Barbeary, Sam Underhill, Ted Hill, Ben Spencer and Finn Russell has been instrumental in getting the team into such a prominent position (second, level on points with leaders Sale) in the Premiership.

There might have been a concern that the arrival of Russell from Racing 92 would be one of those vanity signings that have proved one of the reasons for Bath’s slide into mediocrity down the years – headline-grabbing but never part of an integrated recruitment strategy. Yet Russell has settled quickly and effectively, bringing so much out of Ollie Lawrence alongside. The form of the centre has been central to Bath’s impressive showing of late.

Finn Russell
Finn Russell has brought a touch of class and inspiration to The Rec following his recent arrival (Photo Patrick Khachfe/Getty Images)

Inside Russell, such has been the impact of Spencer that questions have been raised as to why he has not been a central feature in England’s thinking. Scrum-half has been a taxing issue for England, with no-one given enough of a chance to really challenge the preference for Ben Youngs. In recent weeks and months, Spencer, with his command of the basics and his game-management, has shown what might have been for England.

Things could get even better next season, where there are even suggestions their squad maybe bolstered by the likes of RG Snyman and Henry Arundell to further boost their star power.

Don’t get me wrong. Bath have enormous ground to make up. Their record in the competition in recent years is abysmal. The fact that the collapse of the English domestic game has seen a reduction in the salary cap does mean that they are up against it when compared to the well-resourced (and deservedly so) French and Irish outfits. However, a much-welcomed knockout round of jeopardy presents them with a puncher’s chance of competing against all-comers. Bath have some heft up front, control as well as devilment at half-back and presence allied to potency in midfield.

They may not be planning any centurion marches on the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium quite yet but at the very least Bath fans can head to The Rec on Saturday with purpose in their stride.

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