Thursday, 29 January 2009

Bath neither home nor dry

As Bath’s players held their mud-smeared arms aloft and extended soggy embraces to one another following the lowest-scoring match in Heineken Cup history, it was difficult to know precisely what they were celebrating.
Perhaps it was because the draw with Toulouse was enough to ensure they finished top of Pool 5. Perhaps it was because, following Matt Stevens’ admission of drug-taking and the subsequent media attention, they were relieved to have got through a tough week muddied but unbowed. Or perhaps, given the atrocious – and almost unplayable – conditions caused by the hailstorm and rain that lashed The Rec, they were relieved not to have drowned.
But whatever they were celebrating on Sunday, the team had failed to secure that all-important home fixture at the first knock-out stage.
History and statistics show that home advantage in the cup’s quarter-finals significantly shorten the odds on a side reaching the final four. But Bath will take heart from the fact that they defeated Leicester – whom they have once again drawn in the quarters – at the same stage of the competition in 2006.
The pitch may have been watery, but it was not a watery grave for either team. Wasps’ defeat in Castres earlier in the afternoon had ensured that both Bath and Toulouse would qualify. This, along with the weather, took some of the fizz out of the encounter for the crowd. Rather than being an all-or-nothing contest, the match was reduced to being all about whether either side could snatch a win and – with it – a home quarter-final.
Oddly, head coach Meehan said after the game that he had not informed his players of results elsewhere in the competition before they ran out on to The Rec.
That Meehan is among the best coaches in Europe is not open to doubt, but there’s a strong case for arguing this was a mistake.
Had his players known that they would qualify for an away quarter-final regardless of whether they lost or drew, but that only victory would be enough for a home match, then they would surely have chanced their arm with a drop goal attempt in the dying seconds as the Bath pack set up camp in the Toulouse 22.
The conditions for drop goal kicking were indeed appalling, as fly-half Butch James and inside centre Shaun Berne had shown in the first-half with two wayward attempts.
But if such an effort in the dying moments had gone over, then Bath would have been at home in the next round. If it had come up short or gone wide, then the worse that could have happened is that Toulouse would have galloped the length of the pitch and scored, leaving Bath the prospect of an away quarter-final.
Which is what they’ve got anyway...

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Stevens' story puts Rec debacle in perspective

The Rec or recreational drugs. That was the issue in front of me before I wrote this column.
At the start of this week – following the Charity Commission's latest negative statement about Bath Rugby's bid to stay at their historic home – I was all psyched up to fire off a tirade about the depressingly turbid negotiations surrounding the club's future at The Recreation Ground.
But then came the saddening and shocking news of Matt Stevens' drug problem.
Instantly, any idea of writing about The Rec was blown out of the water. There was only one option: and that was to write about Matt.
And, if you'll indulge me for a second, I think my reaction says a lot.
It says that, despite all the worrying, fretting, arguing, bickering, bitching and eye-rolling that goes on about where Bath will be playing next year or next decade, it's the players above all else that matter.
Without the players we have no game; and without the game we have no need for stadiums.
Stadiums without the magic of gifted players are dead, redundant places. What is needed to bring them alive is human drama.
And the tale of the fall from grace from the undeniably gifted Matt Stevens is a human – all too human – story.
Getting philosophical for a moment, the ancient Greeks defined a tragic hero as a man who in all respects exceeds the standards of normal men. In all respects, that is, other than one. And that one failing is his tragic flaw – the flaw that will knock him off his pedestal and bring him down onto the rocks.
At first Matt Stevens seems to fit this template almost too neatly.
He is a fine, strong athlete (at 26 he already has 32 England caps to his name). He has a beautiful voice that saw him appear before millions on television's Celebrity X Factor. He has riches, both through his personal success playing for Bath and England, and through his wealthy family in South Africa. He has done much for charity, earning the praise of no less a figure than Nelson Mandela. He has a kind and friendly manner that endears him to all he meets, and which made him one of the most popular public figures in Bath.
Such is his fame among non-rugby fans that he's probably one of the few rugby players your young niece can name.
He had already accomplished great things and was, so it seemed, marked out for even greater accomplishments.
But then emerged the flaw. And unlike your classic Shakespearean hero, it wasn't pride that was his downfall – it was something far more seedy: drugs.
There is, however, hope.
Unlike a tragic hero, Stevens' decline is not irrevocable.
Although having to face his demons will be a painful process, he still has time to do this before returning to the fray a fitter, healthier and more focused rugby player.
When I interviewed Stevens last week for the Chronicle's website,, he seemed nervy and on-edge. His drugs test had been taken a month before the interview, and he must have known the truth would soon be out.
And so it has come to pass. But with the support and love of those closest to him – and once he has served the inevitable ban – Stevens can overcome this and be back in a Bath kit. That's what he needs to remember – and what the club and city needs to remember, too.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Johnson stings Bath (with video)

Well, given the squad Martin Johnson announced this morning I'm not holding my breath for a triumphant return to form by England this Six Nations. Johnson is casting his net insufficiently wide in his search for the country's best players.

Wasps have six forwards in the Elite Player Squad. With Johnson relying so heavily on an under-performing side, I think we're in trouble.

At The Rec, Nick Abendanon is pig sick at being omitted. And understandably so. Ahead of the autumn internationals, Bendy was in the EPS and tipped to make the England no. 15 shirt his own. Then, after injuring his big toe, the full-back regained his fitness - and now Johnson has dropped him.

And Michael Lipman has only secured a Saxons berth too, meaning Bath - one of the best sides in the Premiership at the moment - only have two players in the EPS: Matt Stevens and Lee Mears.

Still, putting the players' personal disappointment aside, it means Bath will have a strong side with which to continue their push for domestic honours.

Hear Matt Stevens's views - as well as Bath co-captain Alex Crockett's thoughts - by watching the accompanying video, recorded at The Rec this lunchtime.

It's Cuba all over again, Comrade

As the mercury fell away on Saturday, the Cold War was revived at The Rec – and the nukes very nearly went off.

The commanders-in-chief of two potent armies with opposed philosophies went eyeball-to-eyeball, playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship and waiting for the other to blink first.

The ruthless Comrade Edwards – who had foregone battle-dress for the day and had instead opted for a peculiar civvy outfit, complete with silly hat – strode across the turf with the swagger of a seen-it-all-before Napoleon.

But he, sensing that conditions were unfavourable for combat – and with a number of his key foot soldiers in the field hospital – ordered his troops to remain billeted at Bunker Hilton.

Hand-to-hand combat, he had decided, would not take place this day, January 10 AD 2009.
Instead, the waspish military mastermind had resolved to survey the terrain, play for time, and then board his tank back to that most forbidding of strongholds, Fort High Wycombe.

It was a stratagem that would make him few friends in a hostile county; it would not win over hearts and minds. Some might even say it was a cynical ploy.

But war, Comrade Edwards reminded himself, was an unpleasant business. And Comrade Edwards hadn’t come to Bath to make any friends, anyway.

Come to think of it, he didn’t go anywhere to make friends.

Except, perhaps, the principality of Wales.

His opposite number, General Meehan, kept his own counsel, pondering – hoping – that today would indeed be the day that battle would be joined on the glorious field of The Rec.

His trusted staff had been up throughout the night bearing a whole arsenal of weapons, preparing the site for the slaughter of Comrade Edwards’s forces.

Sensing vulnerability and an attitude of we’d-all-rather-be-having-a-cup-of-tea-in-Buckinghamshire-than-fighting-in-Bath, he hoped to sting his opponent where it hurt.
Gen Meehan’s previous outing – a foray into the inhospitable tundra of the East Midlands – had ended in ignominy following a surprise ambush just when it looked like another medal was in the bag.

Anxious to consign that bitter loss to the past and restore his army’s triumphant ways, he was spoiling for a fight and wouldn’t give a XXXX for anything else.

In the end, it took a United Nations delegation – presided over by the French diplomat Romain Poite – to intervene and ensure mutually assured destruction was averted.

Merde, thought Gen Meehan, who had picked up the lingo while garrisoned in Norman territories as a subaltern. The frustrated general wanted to tell Comrade Edwards to buzz off, but diplomatic protocol prevented such an outburst.

Despite achieving the principal objective of Operation Leave The Rec As Quickly As Possible, Comrade Edwards turned to the Sky and could be heard muttering the words ‘O ref, where is thy sting?’

Before Gen Meehan can exact a terrible revenge, he has to lead his men on a merry march over the Severn. Military analysts are also predicting a dangerous incursion into the South West by French forces.

If he can triumph on those two fronts, then Gen Meehan is widely expected to knock Comrade Edwards’s men black and yellow at their next meeting.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Quelle surprise, monsieur Edwards

Arriving at The Rec on Saturday, two hours before the hoped-for kick-off, I should have known instantly that the chances of the Bath-Wasps game going ahead were zero - a bit like the temperature.

It was clear that while one team was more than up for playing in the cold conditions, the other just wanted to be back on the bus to High Wycombe.

While the Bath forwards ran through a few set pieces behind the East Stand and a few of the backs practised some handling drills on the pitch, the Wasps players remained in the dressing room, presumably warming their delicate little hands on the radiator.

Shaun Edwards, the Wasps head coach, looked more prepared for a trip to the Paris left bank to discuss John-Paul Sartre than a rugby match. With his black beret and heavy overcoat, he struck a bizarre figure next to the tracksuited, business-as-usual Steve Meehan.

You didn't need to wait for Edwards to open his mouth to know the last thing he wanted to do was field a XV.

With such negative body language from the Wasps head coach and with his players nowhere to be seen, referee Romain Poite was effectively given the message that, if he went ahead with the match, then he would earn the undying contempt of the South East side.

Against such a background of psychological insinuation, Monsieur Poite did the inevitable and abandoned the game, less than an hour-and-a-half before kick-off, enabling Edwards and his charges to jump back on the bus and turn the heating up.

Although Bath were frustrated not to be able to play their old adversaries, they should take heart from Wasps' admission of vulnerability. They proved themselves a side unprepared to face up to a challenge.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Could Cipriani end up without a club?

So, first of all he has a decidedly mediocre start to his season for club and country. Then he persuades his club to let him miss a game over Christmas and enjoy a holiday in Barbados with his celebrity girlfriend, Kelly Brook. And now he wants £350,000-a-year for his next club contract.

That's a bit rich, isn't it Danny?

All credit to Danny Cipriani for coming back this season from his terrible career-threatening injury, but the boy needs to keep his feet on the ground.

It's all very well clocking up air miles with a beauty on your arm, but you need to earn your time off by putting in the hours on the pitch and on the training ground.

After all, it's not as if there aren't areas of his game that need working on - his tackling for a stand-off is, well, more than a little stand-off-ish.

As unthinkable as it may sound, unless Danny boy sets his sights a considerable amount lower than £350,000-a-year, then he may end up without a club next season.
Just like Saracens boss Eddie George, head coaches may decide he's not worth the punt in such economically tough times.

I wonder whether Cipriani has pondered that.
I fear he and his advisers may need to take a financial reality check, sharpish.

Now's not the right time to moan, Eddie

Why waste your breath venting your spleen over something that was agreed months ago?

That's what the rugby world's asking of Saracens director of rugby Eddie Jones, who's suddenly voicing off against the RFU's policy of insisting that members of England's Elite Player Squad be rested for one game ahead of the start of the Six Nations.

Under the deal struck by the RFU and the Premiership, members of the EPS have to be excluded for selection for one out of the three Guinness Premiership games taking place between December 20 and January 4.

What's got Jones' goat is that the regulation means he'll be missing his captain, Steve Borthwick (pictured above during his Bath Rugby days), for Saturday's match against Gloucester at Kingsholm. Jones says he'd be more than happy to rest EPS members during comparatively 'easy' European Challenge Cup fixtures, but believes the Premiership requirement does nothing to boost player conditioning and hinders teams from reaching their goals.

"Steve's welfare is not being helped by sitting out this match but it would be by sitting out a European Challenge Cup game," complained Jones.

"Why do England have a rule that takes their best players out of the main domestic competition?"

While you may be sympathetic to the content of Jones' argument, it's difficult to be sympathetic to his timing.

This agreement was signed months ago, so why has Jones waited until the final minute before issuing his broadside?

Like all the other head coaches in the Premiership, Jones was alerted to the regulations well in advance and has had plenty of time to plot his squad management accordingly.

Just as with the Experimental Law Variations, the regulations are the same for all teams in the contest. It's no good whinging about them. Instead, coaches should acknowledge them, digest them and deal with them.

And that, mercifully, is Steve Meehan's pragmatic approach.

"You don't want to waste energy on something you can't change," he said on Tuesday. "Perhaps there will be a chance in the future, but for the moment you've just got to get on with it."

The Bath head coach's composure in the face of the EPS regulations is perhaps due in part to the fact he'll be missing just two players on Sunday because of them: Lee Mears and Matt Stevens.

Moreover, the way Pieter Dixon at hooker and the battalion of Bath props are playing at the moment, it's arguably a loss he can easily absorb.

In short, the strength of Bath's starting XV – in contrast to some other Premiership sides – will only be slightly affected by the EPS regs. No wonder Meehan is able to remain in a festive mood.