For the last decade in the Aviva Premiership, there have been signs at Bath Rugby that they may be working their way back to their heyday of the late 80’s & the 90’s.
There have been bright starts in recent years with good entertaining rugby played on quick hard autumnal pitches and sides studded with star quality. Yet somehow, something has been missing and they have been unable to put everything together and build on the autumnal head starts, sustain their performance through the toughness of England’s winters, then drive towards the end of the season with a relatively full complement of players to mount a serious title challenge.
There has been silverware in recent years with victory in 2008 in the European Challenge Cup but for a club used to dining at the top table of Northern Hemisphere club rugby, this was a bitter-sweet moment.
The 2016/2017 season gives real cause for the claim that Bath are back and are ready to push towards a top four berth at the end of the season.
After three rounds they sit at the top of the table having taken one shy of the maximum points available and on superior points scored to Saracens & Wasps. This is a strong start but what is different this year that means this will not be a quick ‘first bend’ only to be ‘reeled in over the next 300m’?
Let’s look at the pack Bath have assembled under their new Director of Rugby – Todd Blackadder. Whilst they have lost the abrasiveness of Rob Webber and the experience of former club captain Stuart Hooper, they have added true international class and power in Wales’ Taulupe Faletau & Luke Charteris. The early season injury to Faletau created an ironic opportunity for former number 8 and crowd favourite Leroy Houston to return from Australia to cover.
The front five are now an extremely tight unit and where they may have been accused of perhaps not possessing the most lethal set piece in former years, their scrummaging impact could be seen when they won a contest against the head in the 63rd minute against Northampton in the first game of the season and they have continued to be a nuisance ever since. The departure of David Wilson back to Newcastle Falcons will be an emotional and a cultural loss but they should now have the depth and ability to cope without him.
It may be that Bath currently have the best half-back combination in the Premiership. Austin Healy, in The Telegraph, recently called the scrum-half “the most important position on the pitch” and by process of elimination that made Kahn Fotuali’i the most important player in the league. He is imperious in guiding his forwards in the way Aaron Smith does at test level for the All Blacks and of course he has the constantly blooming George Ford holding court outside him who has already been compared to the great Dan Carter this season by his boss. Semesa Rokoduguni looks even more impressive so far than he did last season and with the twinkling toes and improved defensive strength of Jonathan Joseph this is one of the most lethal backlines in the whole Northern Hemisphere.
The departure of Mike Ford and the ‘will-he-won’t-he-follow’ saga with son George Ford was a difficult time for the club but it was the right time to part company. What the board have done is bring in a Director of Rugby will real pedigree in Todd Blackadder. A coach who through his experience of winning consistently with Canterbury Crusaders in Super Rugby, has brought not only that ethos to the Rec but a clear vision of how he wishes them to play their ‘footy’.
With Toby Booth backing up as First Team Coach and Hooper transferring his skills from the pitch to the backroom you have a cohesive unit supporting a burgeoning squad out on the field.
Bath really are the real deal this season.