Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Gospel truth: Watson leaves Bath to pursue a goal broader than just rugby

Luke Watson told me that leaving Bath Rugby for a return to his native Eastern Province was the hardest decision he'd ever had to make. Here I give my take on the Bath skipper's impending departure.

On Sunday, the day before Luke Watson (pictured) announced he was to leave Bath Rugby and return to South Africa, he was on his knees.

"Making the biggest decisions in life requires a lot of prayer!" he said on his Twitter page before quoting Scripture, Luke's Gospel appropriately: "But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed."

Luke Watson is a Christian first, a rugby player second (or possibly third, what with his expanding family). This I learnt almost exactly a year ago when I conducted my first interview with him following his arrival at The Rec from Western Province.
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"My faith is the foundation of my life," he told me back then, that fierce, uncompromising look in his eyes. "I put everything behind that.

"When I had the opportunity of Bath coming up I realised that this is where God wanted me to be, that there was more than just rugby here – that God wanted to do a massive thing not only within the club but within the city."

But the very thing that Watson believes brought him to Bath last November – his faith – has now guided him back to South Africa. His home town of Port Elizabeth, to be precise.

No doubt many secular Bath fans will find this hard to understand – and hard to stomach, too – but then the ex-Springbok has never been an easy player to understand. Never predictable, never boring, and always – you feel – just a few seconds away from making a decision that will wrong-foot a lot of people.

But the timing of the announcement is curious. Watson is not a man who does life in half measures, so why decide to leave Bath with a definite sense of 'mission unaccomplished'?

He only arrived at The Rec 13 months ago and was made captain in August. Surely he hasn't given himself enough time to accomplish the "massive" things he was so excited about this time last year. He's only played 29 games for Bath, and is leaving for a second-tier side.

Following the arrival of new owner Bruce Craig in April, Bath will have hoped that in Watson they'd found the right skipper to take them into their bold, cash-rich new era. The expectation will have been that Watson would provide a firm spine around which a new squad would develop.

That he has opted not to renew his contract will therefore have caused disappointment among the management, but – all things considered – I can't say I'm surprised Watson will be on his way in June.

I had heard in November that Eastern Province were interested in luring him back home on a better wedge than most people would expect from a second division side.

Then there's his South African wife to think of. She is due to give birth in early spring – a not insignificant variable in the Watsons' should-we- stay-or-should-we-go equation.

Life without a cause and a vision is, for Watson, a life not worth living. The vision he will take to Eastern Province is to build a fledgling club – of which his father, Cheeky, happens to be president – into a major power in the southern hemisphere game.

His faith is inextricably linked to a sense of social justice. Many of South Africa's black players have grown up in Eastern Province and Watson views a return to his home town as an opportunity to take the 'transformation' of a previously white-dominated game to a wider rugby audience.

But before all that, Watson has a tonne of work to do at Bath – 19 regular-season games, injury permitting.

And if he can bring to those games the kind of ebullience and leadership he showed against Leicester Tigers earlier this season at Welford Road, then that would be something every Bath Rugby fan could say 'Amen' to.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Ulster to bear the brunt of Moody's blues

Lewis Moody says his frustration at England’s defeat to South Africa will be channelled into Bath’s Heineken Cup clash this weekend.
The England skipper and Red Rose team-mates Shontayne Hape, Matt Banahan and Davey Wilson are still smarting after the Autumn International series ended in defeat to the Springboks a fortnight ago.
Ulster will bear the brunt of that frustration, with Bath set to play the province at Ravenhill on Saturday in a match both sides must win if their European hopes are to remain alive.
“Coming back after the Autumn Internationals gives you more confidence as an individual,” Moody told me.
“But Shontayne, Banners and Davey, we all carry a fair amount of frustration following the defeat to South Africa, which is a game we know we could have won.
“I hope that frustration will be challenged into the Ulster game.”
Moody has a full house of silverware: a World Cup winner’s medal, along with multiple triumphs domestically and in Europe. But the flanker admits the Heineken Cup carries an intensity that rivals international games.
“It’s the biggest club competition you can be involved in and I’ve played in five Heineken Cup finals and won only two of them,” said the former Leicester Tiger. “I know how difficult it is to win.
“You come up against not only the best teams in Europe but probably the best teams in the world. If you pitted them against a lot of international sides a lot of those club teams would come off victorious.
“The levels of fitness, the speed the game is played at, the impacts - and the fact you can’t do as much analysis of the teams because you don’t play them week in, week out - all make the Heineken Cup particularly exciting.”

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Raising the fear factor - by rewinding the clock

So, the foundations have been dug but what will the new building materials be?

Bath Rugby's announcement this week that four forwards have extended their contracts is a solid base.

But there also needs to be some new faces – faces who will help build the Bath pack into a gruesome, fearsome monster.

How many top-flight packs fear the Bath tight five any more? Not many, I would wager. That's not to say the Bath pack isn't capable of great performances – remember that win against Wasps at Twickenham last April? The backs may have scored the tries but the forwards were a terrific, marauding mobile unit.

However, the Bath pack unquestionably currently lacks the 'stage presence' of, say, Saints or Leicester. There is no snarling Castrogiovanni or Mujati figure in the front row, while Danny Grewcock, who has just turned 38, is still intimidating as a ball-carrying lock but doesn't put divine fear into the opposition like he used to.

A case could be made for saying that the Bath pack has never been the same since Justin Harrison left at the end of the 2008-09 season, with his reputation in tatters after he admitted taking cocaine.

Harrison was a true Aussie sledger, a right old git on the pitch who was always stirring the opposition up into a veritable lather and the odd punch. He provided an aura of short-fused menace.

Strange thing was, he managed to blend that with real credibility as a leader – until he got caught with a Class A substance in his system.

Figures like Harrison can be tremendous motivators but their inherent inclination to self-destruct can ultimately make them more of a hindrance than a help.

This week, we give coverage in the Chronicle to a fantastic new book on Bath Rugby, After the Lemons. Among the most absorbing chapters is one on Roger Spurrell, pictured.

Arriving at The Rec in the year that I was born, Spurrell became the kind of steely skipper that made Bath such a gruesome prospect for so many clubs during the glory days.

Okay, so he was a flanker rather than in the tight five, but he surely captures the kind of over-my-dead- body mentality that Bath would do well to tap into.

I suggest leaving a copy in the changing room before the next game at The Rec.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Butch, KP and the Ashes

When Bath Rugby fly-half Butch James, pictured, tunes in to watch the Ashes, there's one batsman in particular he'll be keeping an eye on.

As a schoolboy, James played in the same side as England's Kevin Pietersen – and even recalls appearing above the former skipper in the batting order.

The two were pupils at Maritzburg College in South Africa, although James was a couple of years above Pietersen.

"He was a good player but there was nothing back then to suggest he would go on to achieve what he has," said James, who kept wicket for his school before going on to represent his country at rugby.
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"I tried my hand at everything at school and it was only when I had finished high school at 18 that I decided that I really wanted to give rugby a go," he said. "It was between cricket and rugby."

Boks get a serious schooling in preparation

Okay, so here's your starter for ten.

Which rugby team has a high performance centre, a biokineticist who ensures players are in peak condition, the latest video analysis at its disposal, a physiotherapist who is available daily and international coaches who are used on a consultancy basis?

It could be a Premiership club. But it's not even a senior club – it's a school.

To be precise, it's Maritzburg College in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. It's the school at which current Bath Rugby players Butch James and Pieter Dixon learnt the game. And it sounds like a young rugby player's dream.
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As the limping, tarnished Springboks prepare to hobble into Twickenham this weekend following their ignominious loss to Scotland and two failed drug tests, Maritzburg College is a reminder of just how seriously South Africa takes its rugby.

You know the college takes a professional approach to the game when its website states that the school is sponsored by the local Renault dealership.

Moreover, Maritzburg appointed a full-time rugby administrator in 2009. "His role," says the website "is to scout talent and to keep the school at the cutting edge of technology through video analysis and up-to-date coaching courses."

Reading that, you wouldn't fancy sending your 15-year-old son on his school rugby trip to KwaZulu-Natal, would you? Sounds like you'd be sending a lamb to the slaughter.

It makes a bit of a change to school rugby in my day. Our rugby master had once enjoyed some representative honours but his view of analysis was to scream at us whenever there was a knock-on. Similarly, I doubt he went on any sophisticated coaching courses, despite the school having a proud rugby tradition.

The tale of Maritzburg College's rugby department says much about how the game has developed in the past 20 years. I remember reading in Lawrence Dallaglio's autobiography how he was once forced to lug all his boarding school kit from one side of school to the other after being dropped off at the wrong end.

"That," he wrote, "was the only weights I did until the game went professional". Those aren't his exact words, but they capture the gist.

The 'strength and conditioning' culture of professionalism has now clearly filtered down to schools and Maritzburg College is evidently proud of the environment it fosters.

Its website continues: "Outside specialists are brought in regularly to address coaches on specific issues, whether from a rugby, fitness, conditioning, nutritional or refereeing perspective.

"Our High Performance Centre is run by a biokineticist, who ensures that systems are in place whereby boys are regularly monitored with regards to fitness and strength conditioning."

Almost as a cocky afterthought, it adds: "Mark Steele (Springbok conditioning coach and an Old Boy) has been used on a consultancy basis."

If those are the resources that go into a school rugby team, then imagine the resources the Springboks have at their disposal. The story of Maritzburg College is one that all England fans should bear in mind as South Africa arrive at HQ. These Springboks are serious about their rugger.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Come along to a Q&A with Luke Watson

I'll be appearing alongside Bath Rugby captain Luke Watson, England World Cup winner Ben Kay and ESPN commentator Nick Mullins on the panel at a fans' Q&A on Friday, November 26.
The event, which is being organised by broadcaster ESPN, takes place at The Curfew Inn in Cleveland Place West, Bath, from 8pm.
Come along, have a pint, say hello and hear what Luke's got to say - he's always worth hearing!

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Gobbledygook or genius?

'Freedom within structure'. It sounds like middle-management gobbledygook, doesn't it? Or, even worse, like one of those slogans Big Brother's totalitarian regime issues in 1984.

But freedom within structure is now Martin Johnson's stated philosophy for the England rugby team. Speaking to centre Shontayne Hape, pictured, after England's spine-tingling triumph against the Aussies, he said: "The coaches have been talking about freedom within structure and know that if it's on, it's on. That's probably what caught Australia out at times."

All very nice. But what the Dickens does "freedom within structure" mean?

It's tempting to dismiss it as so much hot air, a bit like all those political slogans that go on about "liberty and equality". If you grant people freedom then they ain't going to remain equal for long. And by the same train of thought, if you grant a team a licence to be free, then they aren't going to keep their structure for any great length of time.

But that response is a bit facetious and is refuted by the way England played on Saturday.

Team manager Martin Johnson has not cultivated a reputation as the profoundest of thinkers during his career on and off the pitch; he's the beetle-browed hard-man, not the beetle-browed thinker. But it may be that he's out-foxing plenty of people at the moment.

If you want a definition of Johnson's freedom within structure, then look at the first try England scored against the Wallabies.

The structure came from a succession of crash balls and the way the forwards piled in to secure a rapid recycling of possession. The freedom came in the way the forwards and backs off-loaded to one another once they sniffed a hole in the Wallaby defence.

Never mind about providing verbal definitions of freedom within structure. All you need to know about it was contained in that expertly executed try.

Could it soon be Bath time for Wallaby lock Chisholm?

Here's an exclusive of mine published in today's Bath Chronicle

Experienced Australia international Mark Chisholm is being lined up by Bath Rugby as a muscular addition to the club's second row.

The Chronicle understands that negotiations with the 56-cap Wallaby are advanced, with the 29-year-old having visited Bath's Farleigh Hungerford headquarters for talks.

Sources say the 6ft 6in lock forward, who started for Australia in the 35-18 loss at Twickenham on Saturday, visited Farleigh House shortly after the Wallaby squad touched down in England ahead of the Investec Autumn International series.
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The Chronicle also understands that Bath have expressed an interest in signing Dave Attwood, Gloucester's Bristol-born lock. The 23-year-old made his England debut against New Zealand a fortnight ago.

"Signing Chisholm and Attwood would mean it was 'problem solved' for Bath in the second row," said a source close to the club. "But that's a lot of money."

With veteran lock Danny Grewcock retiring at the end of the season and promising 22-year-old Scott Hobson suffering with a long-term arm injury, the second row has been identified by the Bath management as a potential weak spot.

Cover has been provided this season in the form of seasoned Argentinian lock Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe and US Eagles skipper John van der Giessen, who are both on short-term contracts. But Bath are keen to secure top-drawer replacements on longer term deals sooner rather than later.

Chisholm and Attwood would fit the bill nicely. The former, who hails from Queensland like Bath head coach Steve Meehan, has a prolific try-scoring record for a lock, while the abrasive Attwood has been identified as a potential England 'enforcer' of the future.

Chisholm – reputed to have the biggest biceps in the Wallabies set up – started his career with Queensland Reds before joining the Canberra-based Brumbies in 2003, where he has remained ever since.

The virtues of life at The Rec may well have been extolled to him by club-mate Julian Salvi. Salvi returned to Canberra in the summer having enjoyed an eye-catching season at Bath, where he excelled at openside flanker and was named the club's Forward of the Season.

In his final interview before returning to his homeland, Salvi told the Chronicle of his fondness for Bath Rugby and his determination to return after a stint back in Australia. That enthusiasm for Bath will doubtless have been transmitted to rugby circles back in Canberra.

Chisholm, who has played Test rugby at blindside flanker as well as at lock, made his international debut against Scotland in 2004.

He made three appearances for Australia in the 2007 World Cup and any move to Bath is likely to occur in November after the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Finnish rugby? Yes, it made me laugh too

Here's my column from today's Bath Chronicle. Similar stuff can be read here.

Have you heard the one about the female American powerlifter, the useless Scandinavian rugby side and the England star who got locked in a chapel? Believe it or not, they all have Bath Rugby connections.

It's been something of a surreal week here at Bradshaw Towers, I can tell you. The usual pattern of matches, press conferences and interviews has been broken by a few welcome curveballs.

First, there was the peculiar vision that greeted me when I walked into GG's steakhouse next to The Rec following Bath Rugby's win over Cardiff Blues.

Full-back Jack Cuthbert could be seen posing for photographs next to a woman with the shoulders and biceps of David Flatman (see above right). It was like something from Greek mythology, akin to stumbling across some hybrid beast. The smiling ripped blonde, it turned out, was Liz Freel, a top powerlifter from the States who was in this neck of the woods for a competition at the University of Bath.

My requests to discover whether she's being lined up as front-row cover for David Wilson have so far been stonewalled, although I hear she's handy in the lineout.

Then came the call from the Bath Film Festival.

No, they don't want me to star in another film. But they did tell me about a quirky movie night involving the unlikely combination of a hapless Finnish rugby side and Phil de Glanville.

On Tuesday, the Little Theatre will screen a documentary called Freetime Machos. After the film, ex-Bath and England centre de Glanville will hold a question-and-answer session with the movie's director, Mika Ronkainen.

The film's premise – to follow the fortunes of the world's most northern rugby side – may not be the most instantly appealing but for anyone who's played in a league of whatever standard, there's bound to be something that resonates.

The documentary is billed as a comedy – inevitable, I suppose, when you mention the words 'Finland' and 'rugby' in the same sentence.

But if you fancy watching a quirky account of rugby and male friendship, then get down to the Little Theatre for 6.30pm on Tuesday evening.

Next up in my week of oddities was a briefly alarming telephone interview with Bath and England centre Shontayne Hape.

Speaking from England's training base at Pennyhill Park Hotel in Surrey, everything was fine and dandy until, with a hint of rising panic in his voice, Shontayne informed me he'd locked himself in a chapel. Not long after the line went dead.

I'm pleased to be able to report that communications were soon restored and the silly billy soon realised he wasn't stuck after all. Just don't come similarly unstuck against the Wallabies, Shontayne!

Tickets for Freetime Machos (certificate 15) are £8/£6 (concessions) or £11/£9 for the balcony and available in advance from the box office on 01225 463362 or 0871 902 5735.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

The mysterious case of Butch James and the injury-prone gelding

Over my mid-morning toast and Marmite, the following had me spluttering with the ferocity of Blackadder's General Melchett.

"Butch James yesterday confirmed he would be a force to be reckoned with at Riccarton."

Crikey, I thought, Butch is back from injury earlier than expected. I've missed a trick here.

The New Zealand Press Association story continued: "It will be a much fitter Butch James who treks south for a second bid on the New Zealand Cup in Christchurch next month."

The New Zealand Cup? Never heard of it.

Then the truth dawned. It turns out there's a horse called Butch James. An eight-year-old gelding, to be precise.

But then the story got even better. Apparently, old Butch was up against a horse that could easily be owned by Bath Rugby's chairman.

"Butch James loomed up outside Bruce Almighty," wrote the report ominously, before offering a more sober description of Butch's eventual victory.

There's obviously a metaphor in there somewhere but I'm not going to start making over-contrived analogies between racehorses and fly-halves (besides, I did that last season).

But given the injury travails our very own Butch has endured over the past two years, I couldn't help smiling at the remarks made by Adrian Bull, trainer of the equine Butch.

"We probably weren't fit enough last year," said Mr Bull. "This year he is."

I'm sure both Butch Jameses wish they could agree with that sentiment.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Should Moody be moved away from openside?

This was written before Luke Watson sadly picked up his injury against Quins yesterday - but I thought I'd still post it, as I believe the point still holds.

When you get praise from Leicester boss Richard Cockerill for your play in the forwards, you know you're doing something right.

Bath Rugby skipper Luke Watson was the recipient of such praise after Saturday's loss to the Tigers at Welford Road – and his eye-catching performance in the number seven shirt poses a conundrum for Bath head coach Steve Meehan.

When fit, England openside flanker Lewis Moody, pictured above, has been Meehan's choice at seven ever since he arrived at The Rec from Leicester over the summer.

But after Watson's performance at openside against Leicester, is it time to think the unthinkable – at least if you're an England fan – and consider playing Moody at blindside?
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Watson was heroic at the breakdown against the Tigers. The first turnover he won came in the tenth minute. Up until that point the match had been one-way traffic with Leicester already six points to the good.

But when Watson smashed into Geordan Murphy and forced the Leicester skipper to hold on to the ball, the immediate effect was to galvanise Bath.

It was Watson who punched the air and yelped with delight just as soon as referee Andrew Small blew up to signal the turnover but you can bet every member of the Bath side experienced a morale boost the moment the penalty was given.

It is upon such plays that games can turn. And, playing at seven, Watson seemed to be in his element. His marauding at the breakdown was superb. Certainly, he made a greater impact around the tackle area than Moody has managed in a Bath shirt so far this season.

Since he arrived at Bath last November, Watson has played the vast majority of his matches at number eight but openside is arguably his natural position. He played much of his rugby there in South Africa, with no less a coach than Nick Mallett describing Watson as the best openside in the country during his spell as Western Province director of rugby.

And Watson himself made no secret of how much he had enjoyed playing at seven when I spoke to him after Saturday's game.

"I enjoyed getting over the ball," he said. "I was pretty successful today and got three or four turnovers and put them under pressure.

"When Moodos comes back it'll be great to have him but I enjoyed getting over the ball and causing a bit of havoc."

So, what should happen selection-wise when Moody next plays for Bath?

With Simon Taylor slipping into the rhythm of things at Bath and putting in fierce performances at number eight, I would be reluctant to move him. Nor would I want to shift Watson from seven following his performance against Leicester.

I'd therefore bring Moody in at blindside in place of Andy Beattie. It would be a rapid back-row – surely one of the fastest in the Premiership – and one difficult to contain at the breakdown.

It's a bit of brain-twister for Meehan but it's not a bad position to be in.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Reflections over a glass of Chianti Classico

Tucked away on page 41 of Italy’s La Gazzetta dello Sport on the day of Bath’s visit to Aironi – behind basketball, cycling, tennis and just about every other sport on the planet – was rugby union. There were two paragraphs on the Heineken Cup, one of which referred to Northampton as a Scottish team. Clearly, European club rugby is still some way from being held close to the Italian sporting bosom.

At least, that would be the opinion a casual reader of Italy’s sporting press would in all likelihood draw. And it would certainly be the conclusion that my editor-in-chief (primarily a football man, it should be said) would draw. For the life of him he can’t understand why rugby is getting a foothold in Italy. “Why Italy?” he asked me the day before my departure to cover Bath’s Pool 4 match. “Why is there rugby in Italy but not, say, Germany?”

Visit Aironi’s ground – the Stadio Luigi Zaffanella – and an explanation begins to emerge. The Italians in this neck of the woods are starting to take their rugby football pretty seriously.
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There are cars embossed with the Aironi logo and there are plenty of fans prepared to pitch up early to soak up the atmosphere – and a few birras.

In many respects, the Luigi Zaffanella is The Rec’s superior. It may not have the picture postcard setting – it is very much an out-of-town affair on the northern edge of the small industrial town of Viadana – but it has porcelain tiles in the gents. That’s a certainly a step up from the fixtures and fittings at The Rec’s WCs.

It may be early days for the club and it may only pull in gates of around 4,000 (although, in truth, that’s not far off what Newcastle Falcons are currently attracting in the Aviva Premiership). But the facilities are in place, and with Aironi now competing in the Magners League and enjoying the week-in, week-out exposure to top-quality teams that such a championship brings, their trajectory can only go in one direction.

“I’d like to see what their training ground is like, because this is alright,” said an impressed Bath head coach Steve Meehan as we walked across the pitch to the post-match press conference.

“Aironi is a very spirited side,” he explained to the Italian press a few minutes later once the questions got under way. “It will take a little time for things to gel, but the players are very committed to one another.”

Strictly speaking, Aironi were only formed over the summer, the result of a merger of a phalanx of northern Italian sides, with Viadana the principal club. It hasn’t been the happiest of starts for the team, with them having lost all seven of their competitive matches so far.

But Aironi are not wet-behind-the-ears mugs. They boast 18 Italian internationals in their squad, and their front-row of former Toulouse prop Salvatore Perugini, Luca Redolfini and Azzurri hooker Fabio Ongaro give them a solid platform up front. Recent additions from the Aviva Premiership – former Gloucester lock Marco Bortolami and ex-Saracens outside back Rodd Penney – give them a streetwise edge.

And Meehan – a long-term student of Continental rugby having been assistant coach at Stade Francais before his move to Bath – believes the team spirit that he detects will stand them in firm stead.

“There’s a fine base on which to build,” he said, before adding dryly, “I’m hoping that by the time Biarritz and Ulster come here they are a much better team.”

Improvement on the scale needed to defeat the likes of Biarritz is, however, a medium-term project for Aironi, not one to be achieved in a matter of months. If Bath need luck to progress from this pool – which they do after their opening round loss to the Basques – then they are going to have to make their own, not rely on favours from Italy.

But while Aironi may have to content themselves with the ‘whipping boys’ tag for a season or so, expect the club to grow.

“See you next time,” grinned a jovial member of the club’s staff who’d been unstintingly obliging throughout the afternoon as I packed my laptop away. You can’t be sure precisely when that ‘next time’ will be, but Bath can expect an altogether tougher prospect whenever that date comes around, which it surely will.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

World-class basics? Not at the moment, Sir Ian

Here's my column from today's Bath Chronicle. More stuff along these lines here

Sir Ian McGeechan, Bath Rugby's performance director, recently gave a talk to business leaders in the South West in which he stressed the importance of doing "world-class basics".

Funnily enough, that's what Bath Rugby need to start doing, too – getting the game's basic skills and strategies absolutely nailed.

We all know what a devastatingly potent force Bath can be when the side's top gear – and brain – are engaged but those fireworks will not be achieved until the nuts and bolts are sorted.

And at the moment they're looking a bit rusty.

Bath's handling against Gloucester was atrocious. It was much improved against Biarritz, although the usually rock-solid Michael Claassens was uncharacteristically wayward on occasion and balls did begin to hit the deck with perturbing frequency as the second half wore on.

Elsewhere, the synchronisation between thrower and jumpers was better at the line-out on Sunday but that step forward was nullified by the two costly penalties the pack conceded for obstruction at the set-piece.

But it's not just the practical skills at Bath that need a touch of coaching WD-40. The team's mental focus needs work, as well as decision-making at critical times.

Bath have a glut of players with leadership experience but something is not right at the moment. That was proved by the staggering lack of nous that bewitched the side when a match-winning dropped goal opportunity presented itself in the dying minutes against Biarritz.

There have been other poor decisions this season too. Opting for a scrum on Northampton's five-metre line at Franklin's Gardens rather than taking the three points was one (talk about a provocation), while opting for a stoppage-time penalty goal attempt against London Irish rather than kicking the ball dead was another (my, how that could have backfired).

And then there was the Gloucester match, which was really just one jamboree of bad decisions.

Too often so far this season, Bath haven't been at the races at the start of the second-half. There was a total shutdown against Northampton after the break and a plug also seemed to have been pulled when Bath returned to the field on Sunday.

Few sides will ever sustain a cracking tempo for a full 80 minutes – even the best sides encounter spells where the game goes flat for a few minutes.

And, to their credit, Bath have managed to piece together some strong periods of play, the opening ten minutes against Biarritz being one such example.

But the consistency isn't there, not only from game to game, but from quarter to quarter.

So get that tracksuit on, Sir Ian. You've still got plenty of work to do in ensuring Bath's basics really are world-class.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Fans pray for miracle recovery as Butch James's return put back two months

Butch James has just tweeted that he is "on track" for a return to action in January.
The commendably upbeat South African shows no signs of frustration at this - despite the fact that, two months ago, Bath Rugby issued a statement saying he'd be back from his Tri-Nations shoulder injury in November.
The difference between a November return and a January return must seem like an eternity to Bath fans at the moment. Bath are currently lacking any kind of zip and creativity in the 10 and 12 channels, and - just like this time last year - the big South African is conspicious by his absence.
As the recent losses to Gloucester and Biarritz emphasised, Bath's field-kicking is becoming increasingly erratic and the side are missing the World Cup winner's repertoire of moves, both with the boot and with ball in hand.
Bath scrum-half Michael Claassens is yet to gel with Sam Vesty as his half-back partner, and he is clearly missing James, with whom he enjoys a close bond both on and off the field.
Inside centre Olly Barkley, too, seems to have misplaced half his bag of tricks in James' absence.
Not all of Bath's woes are attributable to James being on the sidelines. Far from it. The Bath pack remains at sixes and sevens, unable to assert itself for more than 10 minutes. Even James would struggle behind its arthritic set-piece.
But as James's triumphant return from injury midway through last season proved, he is - in that grossly over-used adjective - talismanic.
His prolonged absence has already got some Bath fans reaching for the prayer mat. "January?!" tweeted one in disbelief at the news of the November return. "Here's to a miracle recovery..."

Friday, 8 October 2010

It's the no-shows that stick in the mind

So, the first block of Aviva Premiership games is over – and what a mixed bag it's been for Bath.

There have been a couple of bonus-point victories but there have also been a couple of nasty losses. And with the weight of expectation being what it is at Bath this season, it's the losses that are sticking in the mind.

The thing is, they weren't just losses. They were embarrassing no-shows. Twice in the space of 15 days Bath looked like lost children on the pitch.

And one of those matches was at The Rec, the place where they should feel most at home.

They were the kind of performances that make you want to avert your eyes (or leave, as hundreds did before the final whistle against Gloucester last Friday), and the words of the departing fans – "we got spanked", "we got battered" – said it all.

The nature of Friday's loss to Gloucester casts a new light on the season's earlier matches.

Bath were so poor against the Cherry and Whites that I found myself reconsidering Bath's other performances and I reached the following conclusion: Bath have only put in one good performance out of the five games they have played so far.

That game was the match against London Irish, in which Bath sneaked a win with a last-gasp try. Even then they were hardly resounding victors.

Irish spent the majority of the second half of that match with just 14 men on the pitch, following a sin-binning and then a sending-off. Yet Bath failed to capitalise, even conceding a try before grabbing a late winner.

It's fairly obvious why I don't regard the losses to Northampton or Gloucester as good performances (I don't think anyone would) but what about the wins over Leeds and Sale?

Didn't Bath score four tries in each and doesn't that, of itself, give proof that Bath gave a decent account of themselves?

No, it doesn't. Because in both cases the opposition defences were woeful.

As subsequent performances have shown, Leeds are currently the Premiership's soft touch, so crossing the whitewash against them is no great shakes. Moreover, Bath's set-piece was atrocious at Headingley.

Against Sale, Bath may have secured a four-try bonus point but only after a succession of defensive blunders that left Sharks head coach Mike Brewer spitting feathers. So, again, no gongs for that win.

Am I being a little on the 'glass half empty' side? Perhaps so. But performances like the one on Friday have to prompt questions.

The consoling thing is that it is a matter of fact that Bath can perform much better.

The final months of last season were proof enough that this is a side capable of turning on the style.

But it remains something of a mystery how the team that produced the silky handling of the sort we saw against Wasps at Twickenham in April can then produce the woeful litany of knock-ons we witnessed on Friday.

It's also a source of comfort for Bath fans that their side sit fourth in the table, despite being very far from hitting top gear.

So it's not all bad. And if they get off to a decent start in the Heineken Cup against Biarritz on Sunday and all (well, most) will be forgotten.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Big Ben is ready to strike

Here's a prediction: this young fella will make a big impression on the Premiership this season. Olly Barkley and Shontayne Hape will be under pressure to hang on to their shirts at Bath if this 21-year-old continues to take his chances.

When I first met Ben Williams just over a year ago, he told me that Mike Tindall had been his inspiration as a schoolboy.

And when you look at the strapping young centre's frame – all 6ft 2in and 15 stone of it – the obvious conclusion is that he, too, styles himself as a hard-tackling, crash-ball back, just like the England star whom he idolised as a teenager.

There may have been a strand of truth in that description of Williams' game 13 months ago. And while he clearly likes to run hard and take the contact, Williams is a far more rounded athlete than that.

The 21-year-old, who is in his first season as a full first-team squad member having graduated from Bath's academy, also has a decent boot on him. He proved that to good effect on Friday night, putting in an assured, deft kick over the top of the Northampton defence that gave Bath a rare platform from which to test the Saints.

And that was not his only act that caught the eye at Franklin's Gardens. After coming on as a replacement for Olly Barkley in the 56th minute, Williams was like of shot of ProPlus direct into the back-line's bloodstream. He ran on to the ball with the kind of zip and panache that England caps Barkley and Shontayne Hape had been lacking all evening. His hands were good too, with the livewire centre hanging on to a couple of testing passes. And his support play ensured he was in the right place to finish off Bath's best move of the night.

In that regard, you have to feel a bit sorry for him. Of all the moments to score his debut Premiership try, Williams does it when his side is 31-3 down and on the receiving end of a total drubbing from a Saints side playing as though possessed by the very devil. It wasn't exactly a Roy of the Rovers moment.

But that's the way Williams likes to be: quiet, understated and business-like. There are no histrionics.

"I like to be under the radar and I like to play my own game," he explains in a quiet, soothing voice after the match. "When I come on I have my own style and I'm generally happy with the way it went today."

Williams' humble, low-key approach perhaps isn't surprising when you consider his medical history. He's had more than his fair share of injuries, with his legs in particular spending plenty of time under the doctor's gaze. Maybe all those hours in the rehab room have served to ground him, making him acutely aware of how fragile a rugby player's lot can be.

Williams, the son of a professional footballer, was a gifted soccer player himself in his youth. When his weekends got so chock-a-block with rugby one hour and football the next, he chose the former.

Those gifts with the boot are something that he's been working hard to develop with the oval ball. And in that regard, he's certainly got the edge over Hape, who has no kicking game to speak of.

"It's always nice to add to your game rather than being one-dimensional," says Williams. "Some people may have the perception that I'm one-dimensional, but although it was a loss against Northampton, it was very positive for me."

Indeed it was. On a night of negatives for Bath, Williams – who made one start in the Premiership for Bath last season – definitely got a big plus mark next to his name.

"I worked very hard during pre-season on parts of my game – including my kicking game – and hopefully that showed against Northampton.

"My aim this season is to keep pushing those guys who are starting each week and if I can keep coming off the bench and having a crack then that's what I'll keep doing."

Williams may prove an experiment worth pursuing sooner rather than later in either centre channel, possibly even at the expense of his highly decorated team-mates. And here's a thought. Imagine how he'd operate alongside that other recent Bath experiment at centre, Matt Banahan. Now that really would be a terrifying prospect for any defence.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Rivals for England 15 shirt go head-to-head. But who would you back?

I'm a long-standing admirer of Bath full-back Nick Abendanon. But how does he measure up against his rivals for the England shirt, Ben Foden and Delon Armitage? Well, Saturday's match against London Irish and tomorrow's game against Northampton Saints provide a good chance to see how the 15s compare.

I met up with Abendanon this week to get his thoughts on his England prospects. The article is taken from today's Bath Chronicle.

The man they call Bendy looks distinctly stiff as he walks in for our interview.

Knocked unconscious during Saturday’s win over London Irish, Nick Abendanon resembles a man who’s been on a very long, very arduous tour of duty. And we’re only two-and-a-half weeks into the Aviva Premiership.

His face still carries the grazes from the moment he slumped to the deck after being caught by the flailing forearm of Irish’s George Stowers. He admits moving his neck had been tricky on Monday morning and his left foot is encased in a giant protective medical boot.

“It’s just precautionary,” he says dismissively when I enquire whether it’s serious. “I’ll definitely be playing on Friday.”

By the standards of modern rugby, Abendanon’s vital statistics suggest he should be a delicate flower: 5ft 10in and a shade over 13-and-a-half stone. But anyone who’s witnessed him smash into a wall of defenders from deep will know he’s more poison ivy than rare orchid.

They say that playing against the best brings out the best in you. Assuming the truth of that, expect Abendanon to have a stormer against Northampon Saints tomorrow night.

Abendanon, capped twice by England back in 2007, will be up against the current Red Rose full-back, Ben Foden.

And given that his opposite number on Saturday was Delon Armitage – the other man who currently sits above him in the England pecking order – then Abendanon is getting a pretty good taste of what he needs to do to catch his rivals.

“It’s always nice to play against someone you’re trying to compete with for a place in the England squad,” he admits. “During Saturday’s game it felt like I was almost trading blows with Delon – I’d make a break, then he would and so forth.

“He had a good game and, fair play to him, he had a good game the previous week as well.

“But hopefully if I keep playing well and keep sticking at it I’ll get my opportunity.

“The England guys have made it clear that Ben’s the number one full-back at the moment, so it’s nice to be able to play against your competitor, outplay him and get one over on him. Then, when it comes to selection, you can look back and say, ‘Well at least I outplayed the number one full-back when I played for my club’.”

The 24-year-old has had some adjusting to do since last season. With his old partner in the Bath back three, Joe Maddock, having moved to Italy and with Matt Banahan being occasionally deployed in the centres, he’s got new partnerships to forge.

But he’s having few difficulties linking up with Matt Carraro and new signing Tom Biggs.

“It’s different not having the same old Joey to your right and Banners to your left,” he admits. “But Matt [Carraro] is a great player. Although he would prefer to play in the centres he’s just as good on the wing. You can trust him under anything.

“Biggsy’s exciting and creative and it’s good to have someone who’s got good feet. It’s perhaps going to take a few more games to get used to playing together but we’re definitely working well.”

Friday, 10 September 2010

They're just a bunch of softies, really

Bath Rugby signed a sponsorship deal with Bensons for Beds this week, and we have that deal to thank for these utterly priceless photos.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Fancy an exorcism?

Below is my column for the September 9 Bath Chronicle.

You are cordially invited to an exorcism. Dress: Blue, black and white. Date: 2.15pm Saturday, September 11. Location: The Rec.

Last year's low point for Bath Rugby came when they suffered the ignominy of being nilled at home by London Irish.

That loss on a night of Macbethian weather confirmed that something akin to electric shock therapy was needed if Bath were to rise out of their slough of despond.

'Clear the air' talks involving the whole squad were held the following Monday – and the revival, although at first spluttering, began from there.

Bath's form in the second half of last season means that the troubles of the first half are, by and large, forgotten.

Indeed, Bath have not lost a Premiership game at The Rec since that fateful night in late November.

But true redemption after last season's fiasco will only be achieved if Bath put Irish to the sword at The Rec this Saturday. Only then will the ghost of last season's 16-0 capitulation be cast out.

And when you consider that Bath and the Exiles were the only sides to pick up bonus-point wins in the opening weekend of the Premiership, then the encounter looks like being a devilishly hot one.

Between them the sides scored 65 points in round one and both have back lines that blend pace and bulk. In Abendanon, Banahan and Barkley, Bath have no shortage of danger men but then Irish's back three of Delon Armitage, Topsy Ojo and Sailosi Tagicakibau – each of whom scored in the win over Saracens on Saturday – isn't exactly sluggish.

One of the most absorbing contests on Saturday will be between new Bath fly-half Sam Vesty and the Exiles' mercurial Ryan Lamb.

It was Lamb who kicked all of Irish's points in last season's slaughter at The Rec. But following his intelligent and physical debut against Leeds Carnegie on Sunday, I wouldn't bet against Vesty – currently serving an apprenticeship to the great South African sorcerer Butch James – from pulling off a successful exorcism.

The match is also likely to feature two of the most exciting young props in the Premiership: Bath's Nathan Catt and the Exiles' Alex Corbisiero. Both may well start on the bench but there are calls for both to be handed starting berths.

Catt is certainly breathing down David Flatman's neck for the Bath number one shirt. The young pretender is more mobile than his more senior club colleague and another high penalty count for Flatman could force head coach Steve Meehan's hand.

There is likely to be a record crowd at The Rec as the club hosts its first competitive match since its capacity was increased to over 12,000. And the supporters will be hoping Bath can pull off their 100th win in the Premiership.

It may only be the second game of the season but already it feels like there is plenty riding on this match. And if you are a Bath fan, try not to worry too much about the fact that Irish have lost just one of their last five matches at The Rec.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Live: Leeds Carnegie V Bath Rugby

I'll be providing live, interactive coverage of Leeds Carnegie V Bath Rugby here at 2.45pm on Sunday, September 5. Pop by and take part.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Attwood aims to keep Borthwick on the sidelines

I interviewed rising Gloucester and England lock Dave Attwood recently as part of research I was doing for Premiership Rugby's forthcoming season handbook/magazine. The man is a mountain; his hands, truly, are shovels. He must also be one of the few tight five forwards around with a degree in philosophy and physics (although, on the topic of unlikely subjects of intellectual study for rugby forwards, I've got a feeling Saracens' Hugh Vyvyan studied theology...). Anyway, I liked Dave. A very level-headed guy with an appetite for hard graft. I expect big things.
The Premiership magazine, by the way, should be out sometime towards the end of September. I'll update when I've got a firm date.

The man who’s pinched Steve Borthwick’s spot in the England Elite Player Squad admits he’s got an eye on next year’s World Cup – but says his first job is rolling up his sleeves at his club.
Dave Attwood shot to prominence during England’s summer tour of Australasia, impressing Martin Johnson with his non-Test performances against the Australian Barbarians.
But now it’s back to the day job at Gloucester. And the 23-year-old is relishing the task, although he admits a starting berth is not guaranteed at his club.
“You can never lose sight of how you get to where you want to go,” he said. “I’ve got big international ambitions, but if I don’t play well for my club I’m not going to get a chance or even a look-in at international level. So it's really important for me to play well for Gloucester.
"But when you get back in to the club environment it’s easy to see why you want to play here.
"I don’t think at all about international rugby when I’m playing for the club, I think about playing for the club and how we can get results here."
Gloucester bade farewell to six players at the end of last season and signed just three. And Attwood believes that such limited change has provided the side with the platform they need to kick on after a disappointing seventh place in last season’s Premiership.
"We've had very few ins and outs over the summer and that's key if you're trying to build form,” he explained.
“Last year there was an enormous overhaul of players, coaches and backroom staff so everything was bound to be a bit more unsettled.
“It's nice this year that there's a lot more consistency. Everyone knows where they stand and we can push hard together.
“Hopefully this year we are a bit more bonded and have got used to playing with each other a bit more, and that ball will bounce a bit more in our favour and we'll get a few more of those results.”
Attwood admits competition for places among Gloucester’s locks is fierce, with Alex Brown, Will James and new signing Jim Hamilton all vying for the 4 and 5 shirts. And he’s modest about his prospects.
"I'm certainly not the finished article and while I'm going to be pushing hard for that starting shirt, I know they offer many of things that I do and in many cases a lot more,” he said.
“There is a lot of competition for shirts. It's by no means a given that I will be starting for Gloucester this year so I've got to focus on getting that shirt at the weekend."

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Lewis Moody soaks up the vibe at The Rec

A niggle may have prevented Lewis Moody from taking to The Rec against Edinburgh on Saturday for Bath Rugby's final friendly of the pre-season, but here he is in Bath colours (and purple!) for a video I did with him earlier this month.

A technical glitch meant I was unable to upload this to my blog as soon as I would have liked. But better late than never, eh?

Afternoon tea with Shontayne Hape at the Royal Crescent

Amiable England centre Shontayne Hape spoke to me as Bath officially launched their season. Take a look at the video.

Keep a look-out for my in-depth feature on Hape's off-field alter ago - DJ Shape - in the forthcoming official Premiership Rugby magazine. It should be out in mid-September.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Personalities and prima donnas - the art of leadership

What kind of personality makes for a good leader on the professional rugby field?

There are no fixed rules but a painfully introverted navel-gazer is unlikely to spark the kind of fire that's needed for a team to set the league alight.

In most cases, what's needed is a vocal extrovert but that can be a tricky issue for a head coach, because vocal, extroverted sportsmen can become vocal, extroverted prima donnas – as Bath Rugby have discovered down the years.

When I interviewed Bob Calleja last week, the departing Bath Rugby stalwart made it clear he'd had to put up with a few egos in the changing room during his decade or so at the club.

Calleja was too diplomatic to say who the prima donnas were, of course, but I'm sure you can think of a couple.

The personality of the skipper is of the utmost importance because it can trickle down to the rest of the squad.

The virtues that a captain needs are varied. He needs to command respect without being intimidating, he needs to encourage while being tough on mistakes and he needs to lead while ensuring others don't become reliant on that leadership.

It has been a stated objective of Bath Rugby over the past half-year or so to cultivate leaders all over the park. That philosophy was encapsulated by skipper Luke Watson's remark after the win in Belfast on Friday night.

"There are so many leaders I can't say I have the leadership role," said the South African, pictured.

And that's not a glib statement. Look through the Bath squad – and the pack in particular – and you'll see there are ex-captains and experienced internationals all over the parish.

These are men whose impact will not be restricted to matchday, either. Their influence will be felt in training, in video analysis and even during 'down time'.

Lewis Moody is a case in point. Of course, there are his skills as a player, but his influence at Bath will stretch much further than what he does at flanker. He is also a motivator, a winner and a colossus in training.

This week his England team-mate Mark Cueto handed Moody a compliment that made me smile, describing him as "far more intelligent on a rugby field then he looks".

It is Moody's fusion of rugby nous and bloody-mindedness that should inject a firm spine into Bath. And judging by the number of players that Bath released over the summer to sign Moody, that kind of spine has cost them a fair amount of wedge.

Now back to Watson. When Bath were going through the dark days of last autumn – when a win was harder to come by than a magnanimous Gloucester fan – head coach Steve Meehan cautioned against fans regarding Watson as the club's 'messiah'.

The South African had yet to arrive but expectations were high given the performances he had been putting in for Western Province while captain.

Deification of Watson to the pantheon of Bath greats may be premature but his impact was immediate. His elevation to the captaincy was, as far as I was concerned, a no-brainer within weeks of his arrival.

And while he is certainly extroverted, there is a selflessness that stems from his Christian faith.

How he performs at The Rec on Saturday in his first home match as Bath skipper will be intriguing – but expect an almighty roar of approval when his name is read out before kick-off.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Vicars, drugs tests and gambling

The following is taken from my exclusive interview with departing Bath Rugby boss Bob Calleja. For a longer interview see my piece on the Chronicle's website. For the full warts and all piece, see today's Bath Chronicle

Bath Rugby are turning to the Church in an effort to provide greater pastoral support for players.

The club are in the process of securing the services of a local vicar who would offer a confidential counselling service.

The club have been in discussions with the Rev Martin Lloyd-Williams, rector of St Michael's Church in Broad Street.

Chief operating officer Bob Calleja, who leaves Bath at the end of the month after 11 years at the Rec, believes all clubs in the Aviva Premiership need to improve their provision when it comes to player welfare.

In an exclusive, wide-ranging interview in today's Chronicle, Calleja, speaks frankly about the highs and lows of his time at The Rec.

He describes last summer's drugs scandal at the club as "the darkest moment – diabolical", and speaks passionately about the need for greater off-field support for players.

"Some clubs have adopted the local vicar to offer a confidential, counselling service," said Calleja. "We are starting on it.

"Martin at St Michael's has often offered his services to help. Nick Blofeld [chief executive] is looking at it to see if we can set that up on a permanent basis.

"Players have to have someone who they respect that they can talk to in confidence.

"In the past some players have come to me, some have been to the head coach.

"There are problems. These are young men who sometimes have all sorts of problems and you try to help them."

Calleja, who is in negotiations with Premiership Rugby about taking up a role which would encompass conduct and player welfare, warns that gambling could be the next vice to undermine the game unless it is tackled swiftly.

"Gambling is the next issue that really has to be addressed," he said. "There's not a gambling problem at Bath but there is one generally in professional sport.

"Players have a lot of spare time and are reasonably well off. There has to be a lot more work done on helping players avoid gambling addiction. It's next on the agenda." While stressing that he is not aware of any problems at Bath, Calleja added: "Some of them play cards, and the only advice I ever gave to one of the young lads when they were playing poker was 'don't play with anyone who earns more than you do'."

Monday, 9 August 2010

Bath offer French flyer an extended trial

France's human equivalent of the TGV, Jacques Boussuge, has been offered a fortnight's trial at The Rec, I learnt today.
Story here on Bath Chronicle website.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Butch is looking pretty... butch

The Bath Rugby squad have been put through their paces at a series of pre-season beastings, but their fly-half Butch James - who is on international duty with the Springboks - isn't exactly taking it easy, judging by these pictures taken by the excellent South African sports photographer Steve Haag.
James, who will find out tomorrow if he is in South Africa's squad for the forthcoming home matches in the Tri-Nations, was doing a spot of training with captain John Smit and prop BJ Botha in Durban.
Nice work, Steve.

All hail Michael Claassens, the man who detoxified Bath Rugby

The following is taken from my column in the Thursday, August 5 Bath Chronicle

As they lounged on the beaches of the south coast of France on Wednesday during a day off from their pre-season camp, life must have felt pretty good for the Bath Rugby squad.

What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago Bath were under a cloud following an interminable summer drugs debacle; a coach had been quietly shown the door for reasons the club refused to elaborate on; players were still splitting their time between three different sites in the city for training; and, to cap it all, Olly Barkley had broken his leg.

Now, after a summer in which the biggest scandal involving a Bath player was Barkley's omission from the England EPS and Saxon squads, the vibes emanating from the Bath camp are of an altogether different sort – harmony, focus and confidence.

Bath have a stable coaching team, complemented by the arrival of Sir Ian McGeechan; they have a new owner who is in the process of moving the club's entire training and administrative operation to an inspirational countryside base of unparalleled beauty; and they have a captain who has been a revelation since arriving in Bath last November.

For a taste of this optimistic spirit, just read Stuart Hooper's column in this week's paper, a column that throbs with a sense of calm confidence ahead of the forthcoming campaign.

While Steve Meehan denies that he brought Luke Watson to The Rec last year with a plan to make him captain for the 2010-11 season, Watson's leadership credentials were obvious from the start.

I remember the time he arrived for his first press conference at The Rec. The aura was immediate, the self-assurance clear.

Watson likes a good struggle. A constant theme of his is that the greatest triumphs come out of situations of the greatest adversity. Bath had plenty of adversity last season and if anyone is to steer them to triumph this coming season, then Watson is the man.

The South African is aware he comes with a certain amount of baggage, given the difficult relationship he had with the rugby establishment in his native country.

He's still regarded by some in his homeland as an outspoken member of the awkward squad. And while he's certainly not been backwards in coming forwards since he's been in Bath, there hasn't been a gram of awkwardness.

On the contrary, his presence has been uplifting – Bath's results since he arrived mid-way through last season say a lot about the man.

But amid all the pats on the back for Watson, let's not forget the work done by last year's skipper, Michael Claassens, pictured.

The scrum-half took on the captaincy at a time when the role was self-evidently a poisoned chalice. Claassens' achievement was to detoxify Bath following the drugs scandal and, by the end of the season, have his side playing the kind of rugby that caused no end of natural highs.

And all this was done with an unstinting politeness and calm.

So let's not forget the labours of Michael Claassens – a sturdy bridge over some very troubled waters for Bath.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Will it be frere Jacques?

News from Bath Rugby's week in Provence...
Bath will give France 7s specialist Jacques Boussuge a chance to pull on the blue, black and white jersey on Friday, Bath chief executive Nick Blofeld tells me. The Montpellier winger may then be offered a fortnight's trial at The Rec should he impress in the friendly against Pays d'Aix.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Luke Watson and how he got the Bath captaincy

Read Luke Watson's first interview as Bath Rugby captain, which he gave to me just before the club flew out for their pre-season camp in Provence.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Why Jonny F didn't fit at Bath anymore

Jonny Fa'amatuainu's exit from The Rec not only represents the departure of a flamboyant character from Bath Rugby. More significantly, it is symbolic of a departure in strategy that has been brewing at the club for half a year.

Not long after he arrived at Bath a year ago, chief executive Nick Blofeld began emphasising a formula that arguably has little room for players of Fa'amatuainu's mould.

That formula requires graft and combativeness in the pack, blended with audacity in the backs.

"We need flair behind the pack but bloody-mindedness up front," Blofeld said towards the end of last season, just as Fa'amatuainu was getting used to warming the replacements' bench, before dropping out of the match-day squad completely.

And while it was head coach Steve Meehan who was having the final say over selection issues, Blofeld's comment seemed to encapsulate the club's hardening view that running rugby is all good and well – but it cannot function properly without a more solid, snarling and downright aggressive platform.

Fa'amatuainu, a back-row player who can also play at lock, is very much a 'flair' player. But as Bath have discovered in various scraps at the breakdown over the past couple of seasons, it's guts married to guile that secures the kind of ball necessary for victory, not flair in the loose.

If Bath's early-1990s heyday is to be revived, then what's required is the development of a back-row spine comparable to the one once provided by the likes of John Hall and Andy Robinson.

Hall, Robinson and Co's ferocity, physical presence and guts made Bath potent at the breakdown. They put in the donkey work and were widely feared. Opponents knew they would be spared no quarter – and that Hall and Robinson would always be in the thick of things.

Fa'amatuainu, for all his virtues, is not of that ilk. Too often last season he lurked on the fringes of the breakdown rather than getting in people's faces.

The Samoan's virtues are manifold. Chief among them is his speed, illustrated to great effect last season when he chased down Worcester wing Miles Benjamin – certainly no slouch – with a few graceful leaps and the extension of one of those long arms.

Such pace was an asset in the loose too, although his elaborate one- handed carries sometimes only served to reinforce the image of him as something of a showman.

Fa'amatuainu's release to Scarlets on a season-long loan – after which he will be out of contract at Bath – is probably good for all parties.

With the addition of Lewis Moody and Simon Taylor to the back row, and flanker Josh Ovens stepping up from Bath's academy to the first-team squad, Fa'amatuainu was destined to spend the season on the sidelines. That would have been demotivating for him and having demotivated players around can have a draining effect on the rest of the squad.

For his part, Fa'amatuainu has a chance of enjoying some regular first-team action at Parc Y Scarlets – and that's the only type of action that matters to an international player in the run up to a World Cup.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Lewis Moody - his first interview as a Bath Rugby player

I've interviewed Lewis Moody a couple of times before, but today was the first time I had spoken to him while he was wearing the blue, black and white of Bath Rugby.
Watch the video - the first interview he has given as a Bath player after 14 years with Leicester Tigers.

A profile piece I've done on Moody based on a longer, off-camera interview can be read in the Thursday, July 29 edition of The Bath Chronicle.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Justice - one year on

A couple of weeks ago I issued a cyber-sermon on the nefarious thuggery of Bakkies Botha in the opening match of the Tr-Nations. To his credit, the big man has subsequently appeared suitably contrite for his craven headbutt on Jimmy Cowan.
It jogged memories of a column I wrote almost exactly a year prior to that. In this earlier column, I criticised the disrespect shown to the game's authorities by the South African team during their infamous 'Justice 4 Bakkies' armband protest against the British Lions.
With the season almost upon us, I thought it was worth reprising it - not least because I'd hate to see any more nonsense directed toward the officials via inapproriate channels. Goodness knows there was enough of that from Saracens in the Premiership last season.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

The debilitating power of doubt

Read my column in today's Bath Chronicle on the sportsman's greatest poison: doubt.
Doubting Thomas

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Sam Vesty's the new lord of the manor at Bath

Sam Vesty may have been at Bath Rugby for less than a month, but he is already lording it over his team-mates.
The 28-year-old is currently slumming it at Farleigh House - the country residence that's at the heart of Bath's new 130-acre headquarters in Farleigh Hungerford, nine miles outside the city.
Bath chairman Bruce Craig took out a long-term lease on the imposing Somerset country estate when he bought the club in April.
The house and its grounds are currently being adapted so they can accommodate the club's entire backroom staff, as well as all the training facilities.
Planning permission from Mendip District Council is expected imminently for the club to create pitches at the site. Turf will then be brought in and a draining tank installed, with a view to the first-team beginning training there in October.
Vesty's wife and three children are due to arrive from Leicester next week, but until then he is residing on his own at Farleigh House.
The Gothic Revival house looks like a plausible setting for a creepy Edgar Allan Poe tale, and Vesty admits the supernatural sometimes feels pretty close to hand.
“I feel like the master of the estate, but it can be scary in the middle of the night. When the fire alarm went off the other night I genuinely thought there was a ghost!"
Vesty has joined Bath from arch-rivals Leicester Tigers, and while he admits it's been a bit of a wrench leaving his home city, he's rubbing his hands at the prospect of a fresh start in the West Country.
“Bath Rugby’s an amazingly exciting place to be at the moment with the new training facilities and the new players. And the work ethic around the place has been amazing, from the youngest to the oldest," he said.
Among those new players is his old Leicester mucker Lewis Moody, who also made the move from the Midlands to Bath over the summer.
The England skipper is set for his first formal training session with his new club on Monday.
“Lewis brings a certain intensity to training which is good for any team," said Vesty. "It will be good for the team having him around.”
Vesty has revelled in the amount of ball-handling involved in Bath's pre-season training sessions and is relishing Bath's pre-season camp in Provence in the first week of August.
The week will culminate with a match against French second-tier outfit Pays d'Aix RC on August 6.
“It won’t be a holiday - I’ve seen a bit of the schedule!
"It’s exciting because it will be the first time I put a Bath shirt on and a chance to do all the things that we’ve been working hard at."

"Bath will reinvigorate me" - for the full interview with Sam Vesty and his thoughts on where he sees himself playing at Bath, see the July 22 Bath Chronicle

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Raising a glass to the Heineken Cup draw

Bath Rugby have a good chance of being quick out of the blocks when their Heineken Cup campaign kicks off in October.
A home game (even if it is against last year's defeated finalists, Biarritz) followed by an away clash against new Italian side Aironi is a kind enough draw.
They have a good chance of hitting their stride and getting championship points under their belt before facing slippery Ulster - who beat them twice last season - in back-to-back fixtures.
And if Bath's fortunes in Europe do go belly up, supporters always have a trip to the Basque country to look forward to in January, when Biarritz will host them.

Pictured: Luke Watson, one of Bath's few bright sparks in a dark and dismal European campaign last season, takes the fight to Ulster at The Rec

More Heineken Cup news here

Monday, 19 July 2010

Rugby - a game for gentlemen?

Headbutts, stamps, gouges and punches.

With such an unedifying array of thuggery displayed on the pitch from time to time, can it really be maintained – as the old adage has it – that rugby is a game played by gentlemen with oddly-shaped balls?

There was a chorus of unquestionably justified disgust and disquiet following Stade Francais' display of eye-gouging during last season's Heineken Cup match against Ulster.

Now the perpetration of another on-field sin is sullying the game – the headbutt. Actually, that's not quite right. It's the cowardly, sneaky headbutt.

Fans around the world have seen the slow-mo footage of Springbok lock forward Bakkies Botha's butt on the All Blacks' Jimmy Cowan in the opening match of the Tri-Nations.

And you don't need to be a citing commissioner or disciplinary panel judge to grasp that what Botha committed was a Neanderthal act of assault, more in keeping with the law of the jungle than the law of rugby union.

Botha's butt elicited the same reaction in me as an eye-gouge because, like a gouge, it was committed against a defenceless prey.

Cowan was lying on his stomach with his back to Botha when the big South African, pictured, decided to butt him. Well 'ard, Bakkies, well 'ard.

If a Millwall FC fan performed such a sickening act on a rival fan – let alone a player performing it on another player – the howls of derision and outrage would shake the very foundations of Wembley.

But an international lock of the highest order does it and there are still some who shrug their shoulders and say 'forwards will be forwards – it's part of the game'.

Not good enough. Rugby players aren't the sporting equivalent of foreign diplomats, they don't have immunity from prosecution for the 80 minutes a week they spend on a rectangular pitch.

It's time for the authorities to start using a bit more stick and that may require a criminal prosecution for common assault or actual bodily harm in the not too distant future.

A rugby stadium is not the Circus Maximus. We gather to watch episodes of controlled aggression, not displays of last-man-standing brutality that would in the normal course of things secure one a night in the slammer. Our gladiators are athletes, not machines primed for maiming.

Rugby's a fierce contact sport, set apart by its spectacular collisions and the strength of its players. That's why I enjoy it.

But, please, let's cut out the illegal violence.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Pride in the Bath jersey

Sorry about the delay in posting this - family matters have intervened of late. But here's my take on Lions legend Sir Ian McGeechan's arrival at Bath Rugby.
And I expect more canny moves from new Bath owner Bruce Craig in the next few weeks. He's fast assembling an on and off-field set up - both in terms of personnel and facilities - that will be the envy of every club in the land, if not the universe.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Butch stays in the headlines

​Bath Rugby playmaker Butch James has been named in South Africa’s squad for this year’s Tri-Nations, raising questions about who will wear the number 10 shirt for Bath at the start of the Premiership season.
It also raises questions about when it ceases to become worthwhile for a club to retain the services of a player who could feasibly be on duty for almost half the domestic season. Such an issue is already causing a difference of opinion among the Bath supporters.
Should Boks coach Peter de Villiers select James for South Africa's home leg of the Tri-Nations, then that debate will only intensify. The question of 'Will Butch stay in Bath or won't he?' hovered over The Rec throughout the second half of last season. Don't expect it to disappear any time soon.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Bonjour et bienvenue, Monsieur Craig

Bath Rugby's new owner has one foot on each side of The Channel. And as a keen Francophile, it seems Bruce Craig (pictured) is keen to give the Bath squad a taste of the Gallic summer during the pre-season.
They used to do a lot of bull fighting in that part of the world so the front-rowers should feel right at home. Just don't make too many trips to the Provencal vineyards, chaps. Chateauneuf du Pape is only a short drive away...
In all seriousness, I think it's a good move having a pre-season camp and match on the Continent. Chairman Craig has big ambitions for the club, the principal one being that Bath becomes a true European powerhouse once again. Having a temporary base in France and playing a match there (admittedly against a second division side) will go a long way to imbuing the players and coaching staff with a sense of confidence for when they come to play their next big fixture in the country.
It's been 12 years since Bath won the Heineken Cup - the Northern Hemispehere's top club competition. Bath's Provencal pre-season could well give them that extra edge for the 2010-11 campaign.
And as for the fact that the players are to be put through yoga sessions... Well, the mind boggles. Do you reckon Duncan Bell will have time to perfect the lotus position before the season kicks off?

Monday, 21 June 2010

Browbeaten Australia should make Johnson relax - for now, anyway

So England sprung a surprise, beating Australia in their own back yard. And that was only two days after I published this in the Bath Chronicle. But I still stand by the general thrust of the piece, despite England's shock (but, I admit, deserving) win.
If England rugby is a pint glass, I'm now more inclined to see it as half full. But the real test for the England camp is whether they can follow up their terrific win in Oz with a decent performance against the All Blacks at Twickers in the autumn. That should focus minds.
Under Martin Johnson (pictured above), England have still only won nine out of 22 matches. And I'm sure he'll be the last person to get carried away by a winning run of one match. But, for now, Martin, you can relax that brow.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

I can now officially use that dreaded phrase "award-winning journalist"

Good news (for me, anyway). I've just been named Sports Journalist of the Year at the EDF Energy South West Media Awards. (Yeah, I know, you're all delighted for me.)
I was a bit worried that the fact I only write about rugby might make me a bit too much of a specialist for the judges, but it seems not! Rugby union's on the rise...

Bath Rugby to get some Air time

Bath have drawn new Italian side Aironi in next season's Heineken Cup group stage. But what is the state of Italian rugby and will the north Italian side be anything other than whipping boys? I wade into the debate in my column in today's Bath Chronicle.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Butch's South Africa dream gets butchered

Butch James has been strung up by more red tape than you'd find at a Communist Party crime scene.
A month or so ago James complained to me that the Sharks had "pulled the rug out from underneath him" when he was poised to return to the Durban-based club. Now it seems the rug has been pulled again, this time by Premier Rugby Ltd.