Bath Rugby on paper seem to have one of the most talented squads in the Aviva Premiership.
Do not let their ninth place finish in last year’s competition fool you into thinking that this is a squad that is devout of talent and lacking the stock to challenge for the Aviva Premiership title and European honours.
Ranging from the young English backline to the international second row combination and potentially world class back row, this is a team that when firing can compete around the park.
After a positive start to the season, despite the loss to Leicester this weekend, Bath are looking much more like the side that brought the Aviva Premiership to life in the 2014/15 season. A key change from last season to this term is the fresh start within the coaching set-up, enforced this summer by the sacking of Mike Ford.
With Todd Blackadder and Tabai Matson coming in from the Crusaders this Bath team seem to have recovered from last season’s blank and look like once again being a team to compete in the back end of competitions this season.
Here is what we think the new coaching staff have brought to Bath since their arrival…
1. A Revival Of Squad Confidence
This year’s Bath team looks nothing like the sorry bunch who were recovering from a Premiership final loss in 2015 and, for those involved, a poor World Cup with England. This young Bath team is predominantly comprised of young English talent and there was definitely a hit to the confidence of key individuals, namely playmaker and on-field general George Ford.
Since the sacking of his father Mike at the end of last season as Bath head coach you’d forgive George for not feeling too comfortable in his club surroundings anymore but instead the England 10 has flourished so far this season. Since he hit two drop goals in the first game of the season away at Northampton, Ford’s confidence looks sky high and so it should be with Blackadder heaping the praise on the 23-year-old, making comparisons between Ford and Dan Carter.
To add to his confidence, in their victories against Newcastle and Worcester Ford was highlighted by the opposition’s coaches as being a key decider in the game’s outcome.
With Ford on fire and playing with more confidence this has definitely had an effect on the spirit of his colleagues as the team as a whole look like they’ve had a weight lifted off of their shoulders on the pitch.
Bar a minor blip this weekend as an under-strength side lost away at Welford Road to a dogged forward effort from Leicester Tigers, Bath appear to be playing with much more confidence and this has been evident in their early-season form, which sees them sitting third in the Aviva Premiership heading into game week five.
2. More Squad Competition
Bath have noticeably had different key individuals miss games and different combinations play together this season, and although some of this has come from enforced injury changes, it is also down to Blackadder making purposeful rotations. Whether this be as a result of rewarding those who are training hardest or whether it’s a decision to keep key members sharp for more important fixtures, Bath have had plenty of different individuals come into the starting lineups and this has definitely contributed to their positive start to the season.
Rewarding individuals such as Max Clark, Will Homer and Zach Mercer, who are all young talents for the West Country team, with starts and game time in the first XV has certainly added something to Bath’s energy in the early rounds of the Aviva Premiership. By nestling these young individuals in amongst experienced seniors and international players Blackadder has given the team an injection of enthusiasm that was in dire need last season.
He has also given fringe players such as Kane Palma-Newport, David Sisi and Nathan Catt more prominent roles this season, which has further added to the competition in the squad this year. With young rising players and fringe players with something to prove all being given the opportunity to shine it has added that competitive squad edge to a Bath team that needed to raise its standards from last year. It has also allowed them to deal with player shortages, particularly in the midfield where they lost Ollie Devoto and Kyle Eastmond last season, with someone like Clark being given an opportunity to shine instead of having to recruit externally.
All of this gives the squad more competition, which raises the standards that have to be adhered to in order to make the match day squad. This means that each week the fifteen players that take to the pitch for Bath are the fifteen best players available for that week.
3. A Stronger Set-Piece
Last season Bath’s set-piece arguably let them down on more than one occasion. With a lack of confidence and no set-piece from which to unleash their lethal backline Bath looked neutered in attack.
Admittedly, the signing of lineout specialist lock Luke Charteris and the early-season form of players like Dave Attwood and Ross Batty has given Bath an obvious starting point from which to build their set-piece from.
However, in the scrum Bath were one of the most penalised teams in the Aviva Premiership last term. They have also made impressive strides forward and moved on from the backwards-moving scrum, which did not allow their backline a chance to express themselves last term.
Despite injuries to some key forwards and a rather depleted back row for this early in the season, Bath seem to have mustered up a set-piece that is not only giving their backs front foot ball, but also earning them points as Ford is able to continue his strong early-season form off of the tee following good forwards work in the set-pieces.
As a result of all the above factors Bath’s season looks to have begun at a far rosier rate than last year’s. Admittedly, Bath have not played the toughest of opposition in the Aviva Premiership yet this season and they fell whilst playing with a depleted squad at a difficult away fixture this weekend, but there is still much to be excited about as a Bath fan.
There has certainly, at the very least, been healthy progression under Blackadder and one which all fans, neutrals included, can look forward to watching this season.
Hamish Milner, Pundit Arena