Bath were poetic in 2014-15. In 2015-16, in contrast, they were pathetic. From second in the Aviva Premiership one year to ninth the next was some fall from grace for the West Country rugby club. This year, Bath could finish anywhere between second and sixth, but the smart money is on fifth.
Big changes were needed in the close season to refresh the coaching and playing staff, but have Bath got them right?
Former Crusaders coach, Todd Blackadder, takes over from Mike Ford – the darling of extravagant rugby fans two years ago, the pariah the next. However, questions still abound. How will the club’s lynchpin, George Ford, fare without the guiding influence of Dad? After all, he left Leicester Tigers to join Pa down south. What’s more, Neal Hatley has left to become Eddie Jones’ scrum guru with England.
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On the field, captain Stuart Hooper’s retirement will certainly leave a leadership vacuum at a club that looked rudderless for the majority of last season. And yet, despite high-profile departures, Bath have quietly strengthened their hand.
The club may have lost two of the most exciting inside centres in England, in Kyle Eastmond and Ollie Devoto, but they can call upon Kiwi playmaker Dan Bowden, who has at least played with George Ford a little last season and when the pair were together at Leicester.
In the pack, the reliable Leroy Houston has moved to Queensland, while Rob Webber has headed to Sale Sharks. However, the departures of Hooper, Houston and Webber have been countered by the quality signings of Luke Charteris, Taulupe Faletau and England U20 hooker Jack Walker.
Bath then, have quietly consolidated their squad, although it will look lightweight when international matches come around and injuries hit.
Only the recruitment of Kahn Fotuali’i is questionable, given that Fijian Niko Matawalu is better at playing the running scrum-half role than the Samoan. Do Bath really need two talented, but often frustrating number nines?
A key area to expect Blackadder to improve is Bath’s discipline. It was symptomatic of the chaos during Mike Ford’s final season that in 28 games, Bath picked up 22 yellows and one red – to Anthony Watson of all people. The Kiwi will lead the defence coaching, but given his expansive, skill-orientated outlook, Bath now have a director of rugby who can take a holistic view of their game.
So where will Bath finish? Firstly, Saracens won’t be caught this year. That leaves Wasps, Exeter, Leicester, Northampton and Bath scrapping for semi-final berths. Wasps’ backline looks even more potent than last year, Exeter will be full of confidence after coming second in 2015-16 and Leicester’s renaissance will continue apace. We should expect these four clubs to reach the semis.
Bath, for their part, could get fifth. Northampton look rather staid as the East Midlands club is not showing any sign of returning itself to the force it was at the start of the decade. The signing of Louis Picamoles emphasises their focus on ballast, but where is the subtlety that top-level rugby is increasingly demanding? Under Blackadder, Bath are much more rounded.
The Somerset outfit, with fresh coaching staff and the arrival of internationally proven players, will challenge anyone outside the international windows. It’s what happens when Charteris, Faletau, Louw, Ford, Joseph and Watson are not there that will determine the club’s season.
Daniel Rey, Pundit Arena