Guest Blogger Charlie Brennan writes from the heart giving us her views about ‘what went wrong’ in 2015-16 for Bath Rugby. A great, in-depth article, well worth a read
47-10 is a score line that I won’t forget very quickly, although following this season it’s been a constant reminder of where we were and where we should’ve been. It certainly has been a tough time to be a Bath supporter. There have been worse seasons, but as a recent newbie to being fully engaged as a Season Ticket holder, I can’t see that this hole is one I will forget for a while. 47-10? There was so much promise for this squad, bolstered with a glittering back line, which, despite the poor Bath season, has become the go-to for Eddie Jones and the England squad. What has happened to the boys in Blue, Black and White? I doubt we will ever know the true causes but I’d like to take some time to put my thoughts down on paper.
But first I’ll start where I start; born and raised until I was 6 between Bath and Bristol, with my dad being a Yorkshire-man mad keen on his sport: unsurprisingly Rugby and Cricket. Rugby was a sport thrust on the TV, with me and my older sister moaning about having to watch it. Being from in and around Wakefield, League was his game, but having moved south for a career in the RAF, union was all that was on offer so “that’ll do”.
When we eventually moved across to East Kent, mid 1980s (just to keep my age as vague as possible), we entered a Rugby vacuum, where all talk of the egg shaped ball was stifled by all the loyal Man Utd and Liverpool fans, of which my sister and I fell into the divided groups as was the will of sibling rivalry. But still as I grew in secondary school age, there was a twinkle whenever the other sport appeared on the TV and my interest was slowly growing, even though my playing sport was hockey, which I was actually pretty good at (pats self on back).
This was in a Bath Rugby heyday in the 1990s, and being the only side I felt any association with, they became my team and since then it has stuck. My real interest peaked when I moved to Bristol for University; when along with many members of the University Hockey club and Women’s Rugby club; the Five (then Six) Nations became a yearly tradition of meeting up every match weekend and drinking far more than should be humanly possible and also attending a smattering of Bath and even Bristol rugby games where my student budget allowed (thanks M&D). And there it was – I was a Rugby fan.
47-10. Back to the problem in hand. From Premiership Final runners up to 9th. With more than a handful of stars and a squad capable of achieving so much – what has possibly gone that wrong? For me, it’s not one thing, but a number of outside factors that have had a massive influence on the players and staff. With the recent announcement of Mike Ford being cast aside, you could simply stop there; job done, blame firmly set at his feet, but I feel that there is far more to it than that.
The World Cup years are always odd years; the season gets shifted, players have a severe lack of time off to rest, but this affects all teams so why was it so different for Bath?
In this year’s case there was no true pre-season as the squad was drip fed back from the World Cup tournament. There were 10 first team players missing (with 2 extras being signed during/afterwards) at the start of the warm up season which would be a drain on any club’s resources and with the inaugural West Country Cup used as a preseason tournament to get game time in those summer legs, Bath got it wrong from the start.
No-one was meant to take it seriously but the choice to not play the majority of the First squad and use it as a way to blood the young academy players was not where I would have pitched it. The depleted team needed time to mould together and leaving it until the Gloucester home game to even start the majority of the squad gave them no time to gel.
The drubbings by Exeter and Gloucester away were just embarrassments that were argued off due to the inexperience of the youngsters. How is this a way to get the season off to a good start, particularly when the last rugby that these non-internationals played was a losing final match at Twickenham?
There has always been the Salary Cap issue banded around where Bath are concerned but with one of the smallest squads in the league (38 – for the last campaign), it can be argued that the sheer lack of numbers doesn’t add up; but I’ll leave those rumours to one side and focus on the issues of recruitment.
With having such a small squad, together with a large number of internationals in the ranks mainly at 6 Nations time, there needs to be a decent back up for every position. I’m not talking superstar status but a capable person in order to stem the tide when the first player isn’t available. Without the numbers to use, there is always going to be a problem and when you add in the inevitable injuries, in particular for Bath Attwood and Hooper, both pivotal roles in the engine room of the Forwards, holes are going to appear, in this case a major disruption to the set piece. Bath were very lucky that Charlie Ewels was able to make the big step up when called on from the Academy, but a team who are competing at the top need more resources in their hands, they simply need to use their money far more wisely and not opt to big ticket signings and recognise that relative unknowns are sometimes a far better investment.
I’ll start with the obvious Sam Burgess, just to get it out of the way. My feeling was that this was the brain child of Bath owner Bruce Craig and the RFU which went horribly wrong. Firstly, in scooping such a signing, there was plenty of promise but was done at the wrong time. Pitching the idea in a World Cup year was obviously intended to be the big carrot dangled in Burgess’ face, and whether it was a caveat to the signing as has been rumoured, Sam Burgess shouldn’t have been anywhere near that World Cup Squad.
He should’ve been given time to find his Union feet long before the World Cup even started and that time could’ve made all the difference but that was the way it was to be. Add in the argument of where he should’ve played with Ford saying 6 (which is where I felt he was best placed, at least in the early days) and Lancaster and the RFU saying 12.
It’s hard enough to learn a new sport, let alone in two completely different positions. The arrival of Burgess into the Bath squad sent huge ripples through the rest of the team; he was perceived as a shoe-in for first team matches, which was bound to give bad feeling amongst the existing players, particularly those in the positions he was being manoeuvred.
This unrest resulted in the movement of Carl Fearns to Lyon, which this year proved to be a massive loss. And also the signing of Devoto to Exeter Chiefs, which was a done deal long before Burgess announced his return to the Rabbitohs, and I sincerely hope doesn’t bite us next year. And then, he just left. Whether you agree with his reasoning’s or not. It hit Bath hard. This experiment had left a lot of people wondering what was going on behind the doors at Farleigh House.
Rhys Priestland was another potentially disruptive signing. There are two camps that will never agree; but I put it down to a chicken and egg scenario as I try and explain both sides. He was signed as a replacement for George Ford when away on international duty and it was reported he would be taking a sabbatical from Wales International duty in order to focus on his Bath career.
Then following a few weeks of playing at Bath, he did a U-Turn and retracted said statement and made himself available for Gatland to select. It should be known, as is often forgotten, that a clause could not have been written into his contract to seal this deal as is against the rules of World Rugby; so it would’ve only ever been his word that Bath was relying on.
When Gatland predictably (if you’re a pessimist) selected Priestland, of course he didn’t say no – who would?! One side says that he went back on his word and never intended on having a break from international duty and therefore has played a part in Bath’s turbulent season. However on the other side there was the alleged promise made to him by Bath that he would get a good amount of game time regardless of whether George Ford was away on England duty or not.
And as Ford was not playing at his usual high standard, you could see why Priestland would be frustrated at not being selected to start, so who would blame him from changing his mind. The argument still rolls on now and there is a question mark hanging over whether he will be in the BB&W of Bath next season or not; but maybe with a new coach and the promise of more rotation he may be persuaded to stay?
Either way, Rhys and George were not available for selection, meaning that a quick purchase was required and this came in the guise of Kiwi Dan Bowden – more a centre than a fly-half but a competent purchase never-the-less. Although it turned out not so much, as he had a horror story of a start as his first appearance at 10 was pretty bad and then he got injured and ruled out for the rest of the season (I look forward to seeing him play this year though).
This left Bath in an even worse position and had to call on an U20 Scotland player from the Bath Academy to play at 10 for a couple of games. With a dad as good as Gavin Hastings, you’d not be surprised that he played very well, but in the tight games Bath had in the period, his lack of senior experience was evident, particularly in such a playmaker role. Bath were certainly on a downward spiral with less than half the Premiership season played.
All the above is very unfortunate, and can be attributed to the sacking of Mike Ford, having had a big say on who was signed, squad rotation, Pre-season Training; however one part of Bath’s troubled season came down to the players on the pitch: discipline. With 22 Yellow cards and 1 Red in all competitions, Bath at least topped one table this season. On average, this means that for almost 3 entire matches, Bath were down by one man, but in reality there was more than one occasion that they were down to 13 men due to ill-discipline.
Coaches can train the squad in all manner of ways, but making forced or even self-inflicted bad decisions which lead to a card being shown, is down to the players themselves. Poor performance by the team, low confidence… whatever the individual’s reason (excuse) this has been a major problem for the Bath boys all season – I daren’t even look at the penalty count stats as can guarantee they won’t make pretty reading. Playing with a man down also takes extra effort on those that remain, this could explain why in numerous games this season Bath had the ascendancy only to lose in the dying minutes, and also the reason why they had the most amount of losing bonus points in the Premiership.
And finally, in order for a team to work there needs to be a group mentality and a common drive to achieve that one goal: to win. As a supporter in the stands, it has been very evident that this is not the case at Bath. There have been rumours flying about bad feeling and morale all season, none of which I will write here, but the old saying of “No smoke without fire”, seems very fitting.
The fact that the decision to sack Ford was (partly) based upon a consultant’s review which consisted of interviews with staff and players, the writing is certainly on the wall that all was not going well behind the scenes. And then, more recently, there are the stream of players opting to leave the BBW for pastures new; some can be easily explained – such as Captain Hooper’s retirement through injury, Fa’osiliva’s sacking due to his assault admission and Leroy Houston’s desire to play for the Wallabies, but from the Academy upwards there has been a steady stream of players opting not to stay with Bath leading to quite an imbalance of those out (14) to those in (7) and it can be argued that this is because of them having no faith in the club, or maybe its just very bad timing.
They used to employ a Mind Coach who was released at the end of the 2014/15 season; he worked with most of the players as well as members of the coaching team but was found surplus to requirements this season. Considering the low confidence and morale within the squad, it could be argued that he was needed more than ever – but with only a few players retaining his skills privately he has had no input.
So what now? A new Head Coach/Director of Rugby has reportedly been secured but no details can be released yet and also who will take on the role of Forwards Coach vacated by Neal Hatley? Will George Ford return to Bath after his stint in Australia? Discussions have gone on to suggest that he’s taken his father’s sacking very hard and may want to move on to pastures new, maybe to wherever his dad gets a job; I don’t see that this has any legs but the rumours are flying around. Will Priestland remain in the fold? Will bringing in a new coach keep him at the Rec, or has the ship sailed already? Will Eastmond return to League, or even back to the North West and don a Sale Sharks top next year? There are a number of potential signings not yet announced; some more exciting than others – Bath still has a big pull and is often used by agents to increase offers to their clients so I am determined to keep realistic and wait for the official nod before my excitement peaks.
All I do know is that this will be an interesting time to be a Bath fan and could be time for much required change and I for one will still be cheering them on from my seat for as long as I am able. 47-10? I believe we will get there again one day – just not as soon as we had hoped.