Bath’s resurgence this season, and the importance of distraction

I haven’t written about rugby- or about anything- on here for quite a long time. Forgive me? I blame the frustrated author who is battling to write her first novel (that’s me, by the way).

But as the end of the regular season approaches, it seems like an appropriate time to consider the season that Bath have had so far, and to focus on the resurgence (Please don’t say I’ve jinxed it. Oh, I’ve gone and jinxed it, haven’t I?) they have enjoyed this year.

We play Gloucester on Saturday, safe in the knowledge that we have already secured a home semi-final. And what a luxury that is- to play Gloucester at the Rec on the last fixture of the regular season, with only the small matter of beating our bitter rivals to deal with. If we had been forced to deal with needing to beat them to secure the home semi-final, I am sure my increasingly bad habit of simply not being able to watch the play, borne entirely out of the learned anxiety caused by watching Bath for the past decade, would be on display.

Actually, this bad habit (turning around and watching the bowls/ lacrosse/ tennis taking place at the back of the Rec instead of the rugby in front of me, for example) has become worse this season. I think that it is probably because we seem to keep winning. I’ve watched Bath long enough to know how excellent the teams of the past were at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, so that even when we were 45-0 up against the Tigers at home with a few minutes to go, I suddenly became very concerned about the chips in the nail varnish at the tips of my fingernails, which obviously took precedence with actually dealing with what was going on on the pitch in front of me. Once the final whistle went, decisions regarding whether to switch to Essie’s Capri or that bright red Illamasqua nail varnish I had just bought from TK Maxx (variations in shades of red are very important, thank you) went out of the window, and I felt the happiest I had ever felt after a Bath match. I wasn’t to know this was soon to be toppled by the feeling of travelling to Toulouse and beating Les Rouge et Noir in their own back yard.

What’s changed this season? Well, a few things. The money Bruce Craig has invested is paying off. Mike Ford looks like an even more astute coach then he was a few seasons ago, and his son George is playing delightfully. The resurgence of Matt Banahan, the emergence of Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph and the dominance of the scrum enabled by players such as Leroy Houston, Ross Batty, Francois Louw and -increasingly- Sam Burgess have all come together to form a team who look to play quick, intelligent rugby, plus all the heavy stuff where necessary.

Will we finish the season with a  flourish? One step at a time, and the first step would be to beat Gloucester on Saturday.


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The top five fan favourites at Bath

With the announcement that fan favourite Tom Biggs will be leaving Bath at the end of this season to convert to Rugby League and join his home team of Hull FC, I started thinking about how and why some players are so quickly taken in to the hearts of their fans. Many players may be eminently talented and extremely hardworking, but they don’t elicit the throaty cheer when their name is announced that others receive. I have listed here a few of the most popular players that immediately come to mind when I think about my time watching Bath.

T Tom Biggs

Tom Biggs is the type of player who fans go mad for; despite him not being recognised internationally, he has been a real star for Bath in recent seasons, with his increasingly flowing blonde locks and fast turn of speed. It is undoubtedly his ability to score tries that endears him to supporters, but I am also always impressed by his dedication to the cause; he is a (relatively!) small player but he mixes it up with the giants of rugby, just as willing to chase down and tackle a hulking prop or back rower as any other player. His robustness is extraordinary; after a clash that makes the crowd gasp, he will just get up and dust himself off before diving into the deep end again. The call of “give it to Biggsy” has become so common as to be comical, and we will miss him immensely.


BSemesa Rokoduguni

Roko is a new addition to the litany of “Fan Favourites” who have littered the Rec in recent years, but I think he deserves his place here because of how rapidly he has become a player that people cheer when they hear his name or he makes a run with the ball. He has his faults (defence can be a little shaky) but his enthusiasm and pace mean that fans have accepted him extremely quickly as a player they love to see.



david_boryDavid Bory

Now, this is reaching into the recesses of my memory a bit; I started watching Bath when I was 18, so nearly 10 years ago. Bory was a thin, wiry, fast Frenchman who was rather built in the style of Tom Biggs in terms of flashes of speed and the ability to wriggle around defenders. I remember that we all took great pleasure in effecting a French accent and crying “Daveeeeeeed” when he got the ball.



DuncanBellBath1112Duncan Bell

Unusually for a player that fans become extremely fond of, Bell didn’t spend the majority of his career at Bath (he retired at the relatively late age of 37 (I think!), so he got around a bit before he joined us). He played for Sale and Pontypridd before arriving at the Rec, but “Big Dunc” really captured the hearts of the fans in the West Country. He perhaps wasn’t the most technical of props, or the fittest, but his dedication was evident and we really loved seeing him play. On his last appearance at the Rec before retirement, he ran out in front of the rest of the team, arms raised to the sky like a rock star.


joe-maddock_1362416cJoe Maddock

Now here is a player I really miss. “Maddog” played for Bath for five seasons before moving to Italy and then Saracens (I try to gloss over this last bit). He was a dynamic, pacy player who you could completely rely on. After his last game at the Rec, a spontaneous chant of “Don’t go Joe” started up around the ground as the team were doing their walk around. I am still sad that he did go!

Danny Grewcock, Nick Abendanon, Zac Feau’nati, and  Jonny Fa’amatuainu all deserve honourable mentions too.

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Ford vs Heathcote

I wrote last year about the difference between the two fly-halves at the time, Stephen Donald and Tom Heathcote. I thought the set-up was eminently sensible; the world cup winning almost veteran paired with the young up-and-coming star. Donald was not so kindly received by some Bath fans, but I (a few painful kicks aside) enjoyed the balance between experience and youthful vigour, and felt it gave Heathcote an opportunity to learn from the Kiwi.

This year, the dynamic has shifted pretty dramatically. We now have two young international fly haves, pretty much at the same point of their careers. When George Ford was signed by Bath over the summer, there were a few mutterings about the role his dad (head coach Mike Ford) played in the signing, but more concern about where this left Tom Heathcote. Should Bath have two very similar players, at the same stage of their careers, who are both internationally qualified and could ultimately be away at the same time?

I believe so. The securing of Ford looks like it has been an extremely good call by all involved, especially for his calm and reliant kicking between the posts. He proved this when thrown into the deep end on the opening game of the season against Newcastle; a game where the conditions were so bad captain Stuart Hooper likened it to playing in a washing machine. When he replaced Heathcote against Saracens last weekend I must admit to breathing a guilty small sigh of relief; Tom had not had an especially good game and Ford seemed to bring some steadiness.

As to any calls of nepotism, I think that can be shoved sharply aside. From the little I have seen of Ford I think he is talented enough for any club in the premiership to a) want him to play for them, and b) not want to play against him. The fact that his dad is the coach should be irrelevant and in this case, I believe Bath when they say he is being picked only on merit. Before the season began, there was a bit of a campaign by the club to stamp down any accusations of favouritism before they even came around.

You could argue, if pushed, that it is a little tough on Heathcote. He played (almost) second fiddle last season and looks to do the same again. He clearly has bags of talent, but it can be a little frustrating sometimes to see how he struggles to let it flow, and his play can be a bit stuttering. As with playing with Donald, I am sure playing with Ford will help his play. At this stage, only three games in, he still has every chance to stamp his authority on the position of fly half this year. It is a long season, and with the coaches clear belief in the value of squad rotation (which backfired rather spectacularly against Saracens) he will have plenty of chances to play.

The one concern I do have is that if both Ford and Heathcote are required by their country (England Scotland respectively- although Heathcote was brought up in the South West he was born in Inverness) then the cover at 10 is pretty limited. The reliance on one star fly half is relatively common in professional rugby, but to lose two during international periods is unusual. This of course pre-supposes that the two youngsters will always be required by their countries; they may not be, and then Bath will be left with the once again difficult task of choosing between them.

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Market Forces at Bath

New lawyers, a “wealth management” company, half time oranges and a new mascot. Marketing forces are truly beginning to come to the fore at Bath Rugby.

With the advent of professional rugby, it was only a matter of time before off field concerns became as- if not more- important than on field ones. When I am not writing about or watching Bath, I make my living working in marketing, so I am sympathetic to the needs of the commercial arm of Bath Rugby.

I find some of the announcements on the club website a bit strange, and are surely only made to give publicity to the new “partner”, such as the new lawyers and “wealth management” company (I find it rather sweet that the club thinks I have any money at all after forking out for my season ticket). I am not exactly sure what these partnerships will do for fans, but if there is any wealth that needs to be doled out, it would find a happy home in fixing the toilets and sorting out the muddy walkways. Just sayin’.

One of the more bizarre innovations in recent weeks is the announcement of a new collaboration with Jaffa, who literally seems to be a supplier of oranges. Not content with such an old fashioned notion, the crowd will also be treated to half time “zorbing”; rolling around the pitch in large orange spheres. This one will really make the old faithful choke into their cups of tea.

Ideas such as the new mascot were entirely inevitable, and although I know for a fact that many eyes in Bath and its surrounds were rolled after the presentation of “Max” a few weeks ago, the club has had least had the decency to pretend that our new hero is just the Junior Member’s Club mascot. It’s not for grown-ups! I have a nasty feeling however that Max will be inveigling his way into my match day experience much sooner than I would wish. No offence Max, but are you a lion or a Roman soldier? Please choose one, it’s very confusing.

Some of the new marketing choices seem a bit forced and strained, but given professional rugby is a now a business, and business is about making money, they are necessary. A lot are great for the fans, with a new “pub” offering decent wines as well as a wider range of beer, and popular new food. In reality, the majority of these innovations will not affect the majority of the people watching or attending matches, thank heavens (although I might take sunglasses, even in the rain, to block out the glare from “Jaffa Zorbing”).

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Captain Hooper

Bath Rugby announced last week that last year’s captain Stuart Hooper would continue in the role for the 2013/ 2014 season.

Despite what must be seen as fierce competition for the position from Springboks superstar Francois Louw, Hooper was chosen to be the figurehead for the Bath team.

The coaches addressed the pleasingly high number of natural leaders in the squad in a statement on the club’s website. Gary Gold said: “We are fortunate to have some very strong leaders within the squad, with the likes of Rob Webber, Dave Attwood, Peter Stringer, Francois Louw and Paul James. They, along with Stuart, will form our leadership group for the season, making sure that the high standards we set ourselves on and off the pitch are met.

I personally like this sort of “team captains” approach and don’t feel that the pressure of being captain should fall on one man.

Hooper has received a fair bit of criticism from the stands during his tenure as captain, primarily from his seeming lack of vocal presence on the pitch when the chips are down for his side.

However, I get the impression that Hooper is the sort of man and captain who feels that ranting and raving at his players on the pitch won’t necessarily get the best results. The Lawrence Dallaglio approach doesn’t work for everyone.

Hooper is a real soldier for his team; hardworking rather than naturally blessed with bags of talent, someone you can rely on to take you through adversity. I like the idea of a (relatively!) local man leading the side, with a real passion for the club that will extend to his off the pitch responsibilities.

It is worth pointing out however, that he isn’t necessarily the first on the team sheet for his position, so does it make sense that sometimes the captain will be on the bench or not in the side at all? Probably not, but given that we are blessed at Bath by strength both in the second and back rows, and in the leadership stakes, I don’t see it being too much of a problem. I certainly recall at Bath and elsewhere there being a “team” captain and a “match” captain on some occasions which is a concept I quite like.

I really like Stuart Hooper and I am more than happy in him representing Bath as its figurehead, especially with people like Francois Louw supporting him. It would perhaps be nice to see him develop a bit more bite and ferocity in some situations, but as I said earlier, I would much rather my captain be in the role of Hooper than in the swearing, snarling and criticising form of (ironically enough our ex-skipper) Steve Borthwick. He developed some ferocity when he went to Saracens and became captain, and has lost a lot of respect because of it.

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Reviewing Bath’s New Players and Young Stars

There is something of an influx of new players for the new season, among them some well known names, some eyebrow raisers. There is also quite a few young players who have come in and who will be coming up through the academy and I will be focusing on those too.

Gavin Henson

This signing is potentially the most controversial, given Gavin’s propensity for leaving a trail of clubs in his wake and for not shying away from the media spotlight. I know that when he was signed (as a utility back) the reaction from fans was near universal condemnation to have him on our books. I certainly have reservations; his skill at rugby so often seemed to have been a secondary concern to him over his celebrity lifestyle.

But he is undoubtedly a talented player when he puts his mind to it; after all, it was his talent that made him such a star at the start of his career. He does have a lot of experience and could prove- if he behaves himself- someone for the younger members of the squad to learn from. Let’s just hope it is the positive stuff, not the negative. When his signing was announced, Gary Gold said: “He is still a very ambitious man and the prospect of him playing at the Rec is an exciting one”. I think this sums it up quite nicely.

Matt Garvey

I had heard of Matt Garvey before he signed, but not to the extent that his signing extracted a jumping up and down reaction. He comes from London Irish, making up part of the exodus from the Reading based club Westwards to Bath.  The England Saxons flanker can play at both lock and back row and will be a useful player to bring from the bench, I imagine. Time will tell if he can oust players such as Atwood, Hooper, Caldwell, Day etc, but I am glad he will be playing in Bath colours next season.

Micky Young and Martin Roberts

With the departure of Michael Claassens, Bath needed some depth at scrum half. With Peter Stringer having signed permanently, we now have a serious soldier able to play in that position, but the signing of Micky Young and Martin Roberts have bolstered it and given Gary Gold a variety of options. Young comes from Newcastle via Leicester and I believe he is pretty highly thought of.  I suppose it would have been very hard to oust Ben Youngs as scrum half any time soon, and the chance to make his mark at another club was tempting. Welshman Martin Roberts has played for his country at every age level and has three international caps.

 Leroy Houston

Houston comes to Bath as a newbie to the Premiership, having previously playing in France and Australia. He was something of a bashing, battering star in Oz, but went rather quiet when he moved to France. I love having signings like this (Fancois Louw, Matt Carraro and Julian Salvi spring to mind), when no-one has really heard of them in England and they come and make a splash. I hope this will be the same with Kiwi born Houston. When we signed him, Gary Gold said: “”Leroy is a guy I have admired for a long time and we are delighted to have secured him”. I consider that a pretty promising statement.

Juan Pablo Orlandi

Argentinean Orlandi comes from Racing Metro, the club to which we lost Olly Barkley last year. I must own to knowing very little about him save that he has 10 caps for Argentina. The front row is such a key area to Bath’s game that having international experience there will surely prove useful in the coming season.

David Sisi

At 20 years old, backrower Sisi comes to Bath in excellent form, having made up part of the under- 20s squad which won the Junior World Championship last month. The victory against Wales was hard fought but well earned and it is encouraging to have players such as Sisi on our books. Current Bath player Ollie Devoto, who began breaking his way into the team last season, was also playing in that game and it seems as if this prior experience playing together may become useful.

Anthony Watson

At just 19, this former Irish player looks like he will become an impressive understudy to Nick Abendanon at fullback. He is certainly fast enough, something Abendanon has made full use of in his career. From the little I have seen of him, he seems like a simmering talent waiting to explode. Watson was also part of the winning under- 20s side in France in June.

Jonathan Joseph

Yet another ex London Irish player, Joseph is a touch more established than the two colleagues above (despite being only a year or two older), having made his first start for the England senior side against South Africa last summer. He started both tests against Argentina in June this year. He never entirely went stratospheric at Irish, so we can hope that his undoubted talent will find a happy home in Bath.

George Ford

The signing of George Ford to a club where his father is a coach is perhaps not surprising, although Mike Ford will no doubt make sure to distance himself as much as possible and make it a professional relationship on the pitch. There were rumours of Ford Jr coming to Bath as soon as his dad joined, but they only gained some credence at the start of 2013. Richard Cockerill of Leicester said openly that he believed Ford was heading to Bath months before the signing was announced. I for one have no idea what was going on behind the scenes! There was also some mutterings by Bath fans about the fact that Ford will be competing directly with fellow young fly half Tom Heathcote. I personally feel that having two international youngsters at number 10 can only be a good thing.

Ford was the first English and youngest ever player to win the IRB Junior Player of the Year award, in 2011 when playing for England under-20s. He has played his way up through all England age groups and has been seen playing for England Saxons. The familial connection, in conjunction with how the signing occurred, will hopefully be forgotten once he starts playing in the blue, black and white.

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Bath’s English Contingent

I wrote a few weeks ago about the potential for a decent showing from Bath players involved in international colours this summer. No Lions places, true, but an opportunity to impress for England. So now that they have taken to the Twickenham pitch for the first run out against the Barbarians, how did they perform?

I think you could sense the club partnership between David Wilson and captain Rob Webber; they put in a good, professional performance. Wilson put in a absolute cracker of a run at the start of the second half; impressive for any player, even better for a prop. Webber’s career at Bath took quite a while to take off, but he has become extremely reliable since Lee Mears’ retirement. In particular, he threw into the line beautifully.

I was really happy to see Dave Atwood playing well; he has been excellent for Bath this season, especially towards the end of the year.  He somehow just looks so *right* in an England shirt. He didn’t have a chance to do too much, but he ran the lineout well.

It was probably the prospect of seeing Kyle Eastmond wear the red rose that was the most exciting. The rugby league convert was a star for Bath over the last season, and while undoubtedly still something of a raw talent, I have always thought he had everything needed to shine on the international stage for England. He was on the bench against the Baa Baas, and came on at the 50 minutes stage. He scored a try almost immediately, showing off his low centre of gravity and ability to bob and weave around defenders. He was helped to the line by Jonathan Joseph, an incoming Bath player for next season. I was thrilled to see Eastmond make his mark.

Away from Bath, Christian Wade and Marlon Yarde, so often overlooked, were very good. Lions years always mean that there are gaps to be filled and opportunities to be taken in the England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland squads, and I hope this will be a chance for Yarde and Wade. Yarde in particular impressed, setting up the first try and scoring the second.

It was also great to see Freddie Burns starting for England. A Gloucester player it is true, but a West Country boy who is extremely talented. I absolutely prefer him to Owen Farrell. He scored a try and conversion within the first minute and pushed the lead to 10 points just a few minutes later.

Games against the Barbarians are not always the best way to judge their opposition; the very nature of the Baa Baas set up means that they are not the most coherent of teams, they simply can’t be. However, to picked by the Barbarians means that you are a talented player who has impressed the coaches. They will never be a pushover. With this in mind, England’s performance was pretty good. Argentina will prove a stiffer test, and I hope with the players listed above playing well, it will be a great spectacle.

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