Leicester Tigers, Saracens, Northampton Saints and Wasps. This is not a play-off prediction, this is four of Bath Rugby’s first five fixtures this season.
The fixture list has decided that we will learn as much about Bath Rugby in the opening few weeks of the campaign as we will throughout the entire year.
The Rec, in its picturesque location adjacent to the city’s cathedral, has certainly not been a place of contentment and assurance for the last 24 months.
Last season failed to deliver after initially promising so much. This year that promise may be dashed much sooner than it was 12 months ago.
Bath Rugby won seven of their first eight games in 2016/17. Repeating that start will be a serious statement of intent but the odds are stacked against them.
For starters, Bath have not won at Welford Road in over a decade. The Tigers were the first team to beat Bath last term and if this classic battle didn’t have enough to wet the appetite seeing George Ford line up in a green jersey certainly will.
European champions Saracens will then be the first side to travel west once the season kicks off. Todd Blackadder will have far from fond memories of the last time he squared up with Mark McCall. His side were dismantled 53-10 at Allianz Park back in March.
Shipping tries against the league’s top sides was something Bath made an unfortunate habit of last year. Wasps ran in four tries when they beat Bath in Coventry last December, so avoiding a repeat in Round five will be paramount.
A Round 4 contest with Newcastle Falcons looks their most winnable game and could provide the smallest glimmer of hope should things truly take a turn for the worst. They won the reverse fixture in 2016 albeit against a far weaker Falcons side than many anticipate this time round.
Should Bath lose at the Ricoh Arena on 1st October, which is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility, the men from the West Country could already be looking up at the likes of Wasps and Saracens with almost a 20 point deficit.
The hope for Bath is that their new squad which includes England hopefuls Freddie Burns and Sam Underhill can bring some much needed bite that has been absent in recent times.
There’s no doubt, despite a mild renaissance during the first half of last season, that Bath have taken monumental steps backwards since Mike Ford guided them to a Premiership final back in 2015. Such was the hysteria around the club at that time, the eventual comprehensive loss to Saracens still seems evident in the clubs DNA and needs to be flushed out.
The fixture list doesn’t look like making that process any easier and Blackadder has a far more arduous task than he could’ve imagined.
Can Bath take any solace from their early uphill challenges? Well slightly. The history books suggest that a wayward start doesn’t rule out a title push. Exeter Chiefs lost three of their opening five to title rivals on route to their inaugural triumph last year. Whilst Wasps won one of their first five when they last lifted the Premiership trophy back in 2008.
Bath can also take positives from the results they obtained in these fixtures last year. They broke their Franklin’s Gardens hoodoo with victory on the opening day last year thanks to 18 points from the now departed Ford.
Saracens were dealt with at the Rec in the spring of this year when Blackadder’s men earned a hard fought 14-11 win. Should Bath find it in them to rediscover the results of last year then they would win three of their first five which is a healthy opening given their opponents.
Of course dynamics change with each passing year. The Saracens score line omits the detail that saw Saracens missing more than five key players to England. Whilst a win at Northampton, rare as it is, was achieved in an underwhelming Saints season.
Saracens will likely be full strengthen when they head to the Rec and Jim Mallinder will hope to have his side playing more like they did for the two years previous.
The reality will, inevitably, be whatever Bath can muster from their opening five contests. If the latter part of last season is anything to go by then Bath fans may not be the happiest fans in the league.
Despite history making it clear that a slow start doesn’t end a season’s hopes, it does indicate that those who have overcome adversity were renowned for a mental toughness. That is something Bath’s wealth cannot buy them.
Question remarks certainly remain over Bath’s mental frailties. They couldn’t have been given a better opportunity to quash any of those doubts than their opening five.
Bath have threatened to be the real deal several times since their last English success back in 1996. Blackadder is now charged with bringing that success back to Somerset and they will be deserving winners if they do so.
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