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.