Despite finishing the season as losing finalists in last year’s Aviva Premiership, Bath has seemed out of sorts, out of ideas and at times out of control. What has happened to a team that looked like it would go on to build a new legacy in its already vibrant history?
Having been one of the dominant clubs of the first league era of rugby, winning six titles and ten domestic cups, Bath has struggled to make the same sort of impact in professional rugby. A surprising European Cup win and Challenge Cup title aside, the trophy cupboard has been pretty dusty for a couple of decades.
Under the likes of former coaches Steve Meehan and Brian Ashton, the club stuck to core values of ‘heads-up’ attacking rugby, playing what is front of you, not sticking to a prescriptive game plan. Yet at key times this refusal to stray from idealism and revert to a more traditional, stereotypically English game plan has cost them dearly.
Such a mindset allowed players like Kyle Eastmond, Jonathan Joseph, Semesa Rokoduguni and George Ford to flourish. Who can forget the brilliance of Joseph against Toulouse when he conjured some magic from out of nowhere? His performances earned him a starting spot in England’s team and he was one of the first names on the teamsheet by the time the World Cup came around.
Yet Bath’s dry run of success when it mattered most meandered on. This was no better embodied than in the loss to Saracens in the Premiership’s final last year. Often criticised by some fans for being as dull as ditch water, Barnet’s brash bores tore into Somerset’s finest and gained yet another league title with considerate ease.
Just looking at the two teams that day reveals a lot about how both teams approached the game: compare Anthony Watson at fullback to Alex Goode; a centre partnership of Eastmond and Joseph opposite Brad Barritt and Duncan Taylor; George Ford struggling to impose himself as his pack were outclassed and Owen Farrell getting a relative armchair ride to score a try himself and assist with a further two.
Back last October, head coach Mike Ford was adamant his side would learn from the naivety they displayed against a more aware and abrasive Saracens outfit (via Premiership Rugby):
“I think it will definitely be a good learning curve. You do naturally learn from experiences, especially when you lose. You’re disappointed, you think the world’s ended but then you get back on the horse and you’re hungry.”
Yet his team finished in ninth place this year, having won only 9 of their 22 fixtures, losing 13. They never genuinely strayed into the relegation battle that engulfed Worcester, Newcastle and London Irish, but to go from such highs last season to such lows this year stunned fans and pundits alike.
Off the pitch, things are no better. This week, Alatofi Fa’osiliva was sacked after being found guilty of assaulting a local student in an unprovoked attack; Amanaki Mafi left the club for Japan after it was reported he had an altercation with the club’s head of medicine. Now Bath have had to surrender their beloved scrum coach Neal Hatley after England came calling.
Let’s not forget that Mike Ford was once an England coach himself, winning a somewhat devalued Six Nations title after a thumping 24-8 loss to Ireland to rob them of a Grand Slam; this coming six years without any sort of success having worked with both Andy Robinson and Brian Ashton. Ford was also on board during the ill-disciplined mess of a World Cup campaign during 2011.
It is somewhat surprising now to think that Ford was being linked with the vacant England head coach after Stuart Lancaster resigned at the tail end of last year.
If Ford is to keep his job for next season then he will have a lot to consider: how does he stop the rot on the pitch? How does he stop the rot off the pitch? And finally, how can he get his side to play with the flair they have shown previously, but also to alter their ways when they need to?
If Bath are to be successful again then they might need to surrender their principles a little more often and take note from the likes of Saracens. Winning ugly is so much more edifying than losing charmingly.