Many Bath fans will have welcomed the appointment of Todd Blackadder from the Crusaders as director of rugby at the west country club after a lengthy and protracted selection process.
Blackadder is a proven operator, having been in charge of the Super Rugby franchise since 2009, leading them to two finals in that time, albeit without winning either of them.
However, if Bath fans are now expecting a miraculous turnaround in their fortunes after a torrid season in which they failed to progress past the group stages of the European Champions Cup, failed to qualify for next year’s competition and came a lowly ninth in the Premiership, then I fear they will be disappointed.
This is because for the past two years Bath have pursued perhaps the most erroneous and misguided recruitment and retention policy of any Premiership club in the professional era. Some of this has been purely bad luck, such as loose cannons Amanaki Mafi’s bust up with Bath’s head of sports medicine; or Alafoti Fa’osiliva’s assault charge for laying out a student on a night out. Most of it, however, has been self-inflicted.
Inevitably, the starting point for this sorry tale is the Sam Burgess affair. Not only did the club expend vast amounts of money on a player who left after only one season, they did so at the expense of loyal squad players, notably the seriously underrated Carl Fearns, who was released from his contract in order to pay for the Burgess move.
Bath have consistently got the wrong balance of marquee signings and dependable squad players; placing too much emphasis on the former at the expense of the latter. The Burgess saga left the back row short of quality players while Burgess became accustomed to union and the technically challenging backrow position.
Add to this the absence of Francois Louw on international duty, the poor form of stopgap replacement Dave Denton and the absence of Matt Garvey due to shortages in the second row and Bath were consistently outplayed at the breakdown by better backrows.
This, in turn, meant that Bath’s slick backs play of the 2014/15 season floundered in the face of organised defence. The triumvirate of George Ford, Kyle Eastmond and Jonathan Joseph which had ripped teams to shreds in the previous season looked clunky and unimaginative without quick, clean ruck ball.
The absence of line breakers in midfield resulted in Bath playing laterally and into the hands of push then drift defences. Add to this the questionable passing and game-management of Nikola Matawalu at scrum half, and Bath really struggled to impose themselves against quality opposition.
To compound these issues, Bath have suffered something of talent drain during the off-season, with club stalwarts Horatio Agulla and Leroy Houston both leaving, and Stuart Hooper sadly retiring.
Most worryingly for Bath, however, is the exodus of midfield players. Both Ollie Devoto and Eastmond have left to join Exeter and Wasps respectively, leaving gaping holes at 12, where Bath currently do not have a Premiership-proven centre. Add to this the certainty of Joseph being away for large chunks of the season with England, and the Bath midfield is reliant on wingers and utility backs.
There’s no doubt Blackadder is a good coach who will, given time, improve Bath. There are world-class players coming into the fold, in the sizeable form of Toby Faletau and Luke Charteris. However, coaches can only work with what they’ve got and Blackadder is inheriting a demoralised club short of players in key positions.
I suspect it will take at least a season before Bath are back in the top six come May, and even longer before they’re challenging for the Premiership title again.
Thomas Brent, Pundit Arena