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.