Monday, 29 December 2008

Why whinging nimbies are wrecking The Rec

The following is taken from my column for The Bath Chronicle. To read more, click here

"It's a responsibility of ours to provide value for money in such economically difficult times," joked Steve Meehan to journalists on Monday, referring to Bath's heart-straining knack of stealing a victory in the dying moments of a game.

It was a throwaway line by the Bath head coach, but there was a thread of what he was saying that rang true.

Guinness Premiership rugby clubs aren't, of course, obliged to provide value for money, if such value is measured by whether a side can serve up entertaining rugby. Just look at the invariably dreary, one-dimensional performances of Wasps.

But it does seem that, paradoxically, demand to watch live top-flight rugby in this country is rising and not falling during the economic slowdown.

On Saturday, 50,000 fans flocked to Twickenham to watch what was dubbed (admittedly by sponsors Guinness) The Big Game. It smashed the attendance record for a Premiership match, and it's testament to the increasing pulling power of top-flight domestic rugby union that two sides can attract such a huge crowd, despite the scarcity of cash at the moment.

And at the other end of the M4, matches at The Rec continue to be sell-outs too.

The average attendance figure for a Guinness Premiership match is now greater than 11,000 and there's little doubt that, were The Rec to have a capacity greater than its current 10,600, then Bath would comfortably exceed that figure week-in, week-out.

Herein lies the big frustration for Bath. They are playing compelling expansive, nerve-jangling, 'value for money' rugby that's the most watchable in the Premiership and which people are queuing up to catch a glimpse of, but they can't cater for the demand.

If they played in a larger stadium, then more fans – and more money – would be flowing in. And that would be beneficial for both the club's medium and long-term prospects.

As it is, however, the club is falling further into the red because it is constrained by the long-running debacle over whether or not it will be allowed to expand on The Recreation Ground.

It's not just the Bath fans who want value for money – the club also needs to get value for money by being allowed to expand and pursue its commercial interests in the city where it belongs, unhindered by the efforts of a cantankerous nimby clique and by bureaucratic procrastination.

What all this talk of attendance figures serves to do is bring into sharp relief the fact that Bath Rugby desperately needs to have clarity over its future – or lack of one – at The Rec.

If there's one resolution that the trustees of The Rec, the Charity Commission and the club itself should make this January 1, it's that this whole sorry saga needs to be resolved with the kind of urgency that Bath show in the dying seconds of a game.

But, sadly, I wouldn't bet against me having to write an almost identical column in 12 months' time.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Chasing the bonus ball

The following is taken from Tom's column in the multi-award-winning Bath Chronicle. Click here for more.

The idea of giving teams a point for narrowly losing – or giving them an extra point for scoring x number of tries – may have come in for a bit of stick when it was first mooted, but Bath Rugby fans should be proclaiming the virtues of the bonus-point system from the rooftops.
Without bonus points, Bath wouldn't be enjoying such a successful season both domestically and in Europe.
Bath are tied first for the number of bonus points clocked up so far in the Guinness Premiership, and their three bonus points to Toulouse's one in Pool 5 of the Heineken Cup could prove decisive when the French side visits The Rec next month.
Assuming that Bath can defeat the Dragons in Newport in their penultimate Pool 5 match, then victory over Toulouse will – all other things being equal – catapult Bath to the top of the group, and such a position will be due to the English side's healthy crop of bonus points.
Moreover, should Bath fail to top their Heineken Cup group, then the number of bonus points they have accrued could be vital in securing them a runners-up berth in the competition's final eight.
Of course, all this doesn't mean that the bonus-point system is necessarily fair, or accurately reflects performance. It manifestly doesn't – and Bath and their supporters should know this better than anyone following their last two matches.
And that's because figures can deceive.
Bath emerged from their battles with the Glasgow Warriors with the maximum points available – 10 out of 10. If the bonus-point system was a true gauge of performance, then – looking solely at Bath's figures – you'd conclude they had been magnificent.
The truth, however, is that they almost threw away a 35-19 lead in the opening encounter and, in the return match, only secured the win courtesy of a late try.
But rules are rules and for all their shortcomings, particularly in defence in the first match of the double-header, Bath emerged with a full haul of points.
An argument that's often put in favour of the bonus-point system is that it enhances the spectacle for fans, with teams playing right up until the final whistle in order to maximise the number of points they come away with.
And for all its occasional scrappiness and blunders, that's why the opening encounter between Bath and Glasgow was so engrossing. Both sides put their all into crossing the try line four times. It was end-to-end stuff and testament to how the bonus-point system can ensure that supporters get their money's worth.
But this dimension of the bonus- point system only works when both teams are willing to go for the four-try bonus point from the off. If a side wants to keep the play tight and restrict the amount of rugby, then the bonus-point system makes no difference.
For all that, however, it's undeniable that the system has served Bath well thus far this season. But there are some more sobering statistics that are no doubt causing concern at The Rec.
Bath may be third in the Premiership, but if you want to find a side that has conceded more points, then your eyes have to scan down to the team that's third from bottom, Northampton Saints. That's a worrying figure, and only partially sweetened by the fact that – with 201 points for – Bath are the highest scoring team in the league.
Bath will surely only be able to claim the biggest bonus of all – the Guinness Premiership or the Heineken Cup – if they turn that points-against statistic around.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Two months on, and Bath still haven't learned the lessons from Toulouse

Are Bath Rugby learning from their mistakes as this year's Heineken Cup progresses?

Judging from Sunday's display, the answer has to be an emphatic no.

Following the last-gasp loss to Toulouse at the Stade Municipal two months ago – when Bath failed to close out the game and allowed David Skrela to slot over a decisive penalty – fly-half Butch James vowed that the team wouldn't repeat the error.
"If we're in the same position again, we won't make the same mistake and we'll close the game out," said the South African back in October.
But against Glasgow on Sunday, that's precisely what Bath didn't do.
Okay, so they clung on for victory – but only just. With the clock ticking down they allowed a 35-19 advantage to shrink to just a four-point lead. And although Glasgow's attack was alert, it was mistakes by the home side that allowed the visitors to scent victory.
When there's less than five minutes to go and when you're defending a fragile lead, it's never going to be a good idea to chuck a high, speculative pass like the one that Nick Abendanon threw – straight into the hands of Glasgow fly-half Ruaridh Jackson for an interception try.
And when the clock shows just a few seconds remaining, it's vital that Bath are able to retain control of the ball and thump it over the stands, rather than allowing themselves to be turned over and put under pressure.
Following victory on Sunday, an understandably frustrated Steve Meehan was forced to repeat the message that he had uttered after the Pool 5 opener in Toulouse.
For a taste of just how similar Bath's failings against Glasgow were to their failings against the French side, compare these remarks by the Bath head coach in his post-match interviews.
After the Toulouse match, October 12: "It's never over until it's over and mistakes like the one we made in the last seconds of a contest as close as that cost a lot in a game where the margins are so tight."
After the Glasgow match, December 7: "We should know this all too well The game goes until the final bell, and sometimes after that. If anyone knows it from this season it's Bath. We need to make sure we play ourselves for the 80 minutes."
Remaining focused for the full 80 seems to be Bath's big problem at the moment, and it's a failing that will surely be their undoing in both the domestic league and in Europe unless it's swiftly remedied.
Certainly the sports psychology team at The Rec should have plenty on their plate.
On the bright side, Bath are just three points behind Toulouse in Pool 5 and could be well-placed to spring an ambush on the French side when they come to The Rec – assuming, that is, that Bath can defeat both the Warriors and Newport Gwent Dragons away.
With ball in hand going forward, Bath remain a dynamic unit that is a joy to watch.
But such wide, free-flowing attacking play will be worth nothing if the side is unable to dominate possession when it needs to close games out.
So far this season, Bath's fortunes have illustrated more clearly than most that the line between success and failure in English and European rugby is paper-thin. With such a small margin between winning and losing, Bath need to learn their lessons quickly.

This is taken from Tom's Bath Chronicle column. Click here to read more.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Facing up to the Warriors

After an uneasy couple of weeks in the Guinness Premiership, Bath Rugby's thoughts now turn to the Heineken Cup.

And it's back-to-back matches with the Glasgow Warriors that the club has on its plate, starting with a game at The Rec on Sunday.

With Toulouse at the top of the group, nothing less than two victories is going to be good enough for Bath over the next couple of weeks.

And on Sunday, there'll be wanting to secure a bonus-point win - as prop Duncan Bell told me when I meet up with him on Wednesday (see the accompanying video).

So it looks like some expansive rugby could once again be on the cards at The Rec.

But Bath, as well as playing expansive stuff, will need to ensure their kicking game out of hand is better than in recent weeks. Poor kicking has resulted in Bath failing to clear their lines in the last two matches and that in turn has put them on the back foot.

So come on Butch - hoof the ball in to touch as well as you've been nudging it between the sticks.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Blimey, ref, give us a break

"Referees have got to be consistent, that’s all we’re asking for. I don’t think the referee was consistent."

Bath Rugby head coach Steve Meehan, pictured, was critical of some of the decisions made by referee Martin Fox following Bath’s 14-21 loss at The Stoop on Sunday – but the words above weren’t spoken by him.

So who did utter them?

They were the words of Jim Mallinder a couple of weeks ago when his Northampton Saints side were held to a draw – by Bath.

Referees have always come in for stick from rugby fans, but it seems they are becoming increasingly fair game for coaches too.

Just when the hullabaloo over the introduction of the Experimental Law Variations was fading away, the debate looks set to be reignited.

So frustrated was Meehan after Bath’s defeat at Harlequins that he complained that "there must be an ELV that I haven’t heard of".

Rugby union has long been distinguished from association football by the level of respect generally conferred on officials by players and coaches. (Rugby union must be one of the few sports in the world where the ref sometimes still gets called ‘sir’ by players.) And that respect for those in authority has tended to bestow a dignity on rugby union that soccer surrendered years ago.

Of course, there have been notable exceptions on the rugby field, both at professional and amateur level.

On one occasion at university my team’s captain – a tee-total scrum-half who off the pitch was a leading member of the college’s Christian union – saw red in spectacular fashion. Aggrieved when the ref blew up and awarded yet another dubious penalty to the opposition, he gave the official (who turned out to be a recently retired copper) a decidedly firm shove, before being put in a headlock and given a red card. He then ran from the pitch with tears in his eyes, immediately regretting his actions.

It was a terrible act of dissent, but at least he immediately recognised the gravity of his failings as a team leader, player and human being.

Football managers, on the other hand, seem to psyche themselves for post-match interviews so they can deliver the most damning assessment of the referee possible.

How boring it is, and how childish, to see some purple-faced Barclays Premier League soccer manager incoherently fuming to the TV cameras about the ref’s supposed poor judgement, bad eyesight and bias.

Of course, there are moments when a ref has had such an appalling game that criticism – expressed in measured terms – is appropriate, even needed. But soccer managers have cried wolf far too many times for their rants to be given credibility.

Rugby union coaches have shied away from the kind of hyperbole and hysteria that is now the bread and butter of soccer managers on the wrong end of a result.

And that’s why the RFU needs to sit up when experienced, distinguished senior coaches raise their concerns publicly.

The ELVs were always going to cause difficulties, with different referees applying the letter and spirit of the new laws in different ways.

But the rugby authorities need to act firmly and quickly to ensure greater consistency across Guinness Premiership matches, where the margin between victory and loss – as Bath have shown for the past three weeks – is so fine.

Am I talking rubbish? If you think so, drop me a comment

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Bath and Gloucester - more similar than their fans like to admit

As a fan, coach, player or journalist, there are always certain matches that jump out at you when you cast your eyes down the season's fixture list.

And if it's not underscored three times in red ink already, then I suggest you put February 28 down in your 2009 diary.

For that is the date when Bath Rugby could well be playing a game that will determine whether they are truly made of the stuff of champions.

Bath will make the journey up the A46 to Gloucester – and I predict, even at this early stage, that what's always an electric affair will be something extra special this time around.

Why say this when we're not even in December yet?

Because I take my hat off to Gloucester – and suggest that Bath are closer to their West Country rivals in many respects than both sides (and sets of fans) often care to mention.

Even if as a lifelong Bath fan you are genetically predisposed to dislike the Cherry and Whites, you have to admire the type of rugby they are playing at the moment.

In their last two games, gainst Bristol and Northampton, they served up the kind of free-flowing, well-executed, attacking game that Bath also strive to play each week – and invariably succeed in producing.

Following his side's 39-10 demolition at Kingsholm, Gloucester coach Dean Ryan gave warning to his absent internationals that they were going to have to be on the top of their game upon their return if they were to force their way back into the club's starting XV.

You know that competition for places must be keen at Gloucester when the likes of Lesley Vainikolo and Olly Barkley, pictured, are keeping their club's subs' bench warm during the autumn international season.

Stoking competition for places seems to be working for Ryan, and it augurs well for the rest of the Cherry and Whites' Premiership campaign.

To see two sides with such attacking flair come up against one another at such a key point in the season with the semi-finals beckoning will be something to savour and should produce no shortage of fireworks.

And there are other reasons why the spectacle promises to be compelling.

Although The Rec fans won't need reminding, Bath lost their unbeaten home record against Gloucester earlier this season. The defeat will continue to rankle in the Bath Rugby psyche until they get a chance to exorcise that demon.

This is taken from Tom's weekly column in The Bath Chronicle, which was this week named the best weekly newspaper in the country by the Newspaper Society. To read the rest of this article, click here

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Bath's cash woes deepen

So, Bath Rugby has fallen further into the red. It's just emerged that, during the 2007/08 season, the club suffered a £357,000 loss.

I've written about the financial headaches facing the club and the game as a whole before - but it seems the problems are becoming depressingly acute for Bath.

The club is now forecasting a loss for 2008/09 of £750,000.

A statement attached to the end of year results says "The reality is a stark one".

No kidding.

Andrew Brownsword, pictured, will be bailing the club out of the deficit again, but, boy, I bet he's anxious to find someone willing to take this club off his hands.

A couple of months ago, Bath Rugby CEO Bob Calleja publicly appealed for any potential investors to get in touch.

He's desperate for investment, and - given the growing credit crisis - that desperation must be growing by the day.

The underlying problem is that the club still doesn't know whether it has a short, medium or long-term future at The Rec. The only way for the club to get on a financial even keel is for it to boost ticket receipts - and that can't happen until it either expands on The Rec or builds a new stadium elsewhere.

So, the trustees who oversee The Rec need to come up with a decision on the ground's future pronto.

Until the issue of the ground's future is resolved, Brownsword ain't going to find a buyer and Calleja's going to struggle to find more investors.

If clarity over its future is not provided swiftly, then a cash problem at the club could develop into a full-blown crisis.

And all this while the club is flying high at the top of the Guinness Premiership...

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Lipman in, Cipriani out

After a second successive perform-
ance that had all the defensive muscle of a cowering inverte-
brate, Danny Cipriani has been deservedly dropped from England's starting XV to face the All Blacks.

But many will be asking why, after a defensive performance that would embarrass a National League One fly-half, the Wasp is even on the bench.

Cipriani's skills with the ball in hand aren't in question. But his commitment to the tackle is invariably half-hearted. His technique is poor, with a posture that's too upright.

What he needs is a lesson from his predecessor, Mr J Wilkinson, a man who never ducks out of a tackle and who takes down bigger men like a cheetah pulling down a zebra.

Elsewhere, Bath's Michael Lipman has been handed the No 7 shirt for Saturday's match against New Zealand. Let's hope he's able to transfer his rich form in the Guinness Premiership to the barren land of Twickers.

For more news on the England team for Saturday, click here

Mouthing off from the terraces

Here's an ethical conundrum for the rugby terraces. Is it ever appropriate to jeer the opposition?

Is it always unsporting and uncouth, or should it just be accepted as a feature that adds to the atmosphere of a high-level game?

The issue has been brought into sharp relief by the spectacle of England fans booing Australia's Matt Giteau at Twickenham on Saturday.

Every pundit seems to have an opinion on the incident – with many adopting such a scandalised, po-faced reaction that you'd be forgiven for thinking they'd never witnessed a cat call at a match before.

But what of the psychology of jeering? Booing the kicker is more often than not a form of displacement activity. Frustrated by the perceived injustice of the referee's decisions but powerless to reverse those judgements, the aggrieved fans vent their anger on the person who they believe they can affect – the place-kicker.

However, pundits, fellow players, coaches and supporters should be wary of feeling outraged on a kicker's behalf.

For evidence of this, I invite you to step back in time to a dank afternoon at The Rec on October 4 when Bath hosted Leicester in the EDF Energy Cup.

On that day it was the boot of Tigers' fly-half Derick Hougaard that did for Bath. During the afternoon, The Rec fans had the audacity to let out some feeble jeers when the South African prepared to kick one of his penalties, prompting a headmasterly voice over the public address system to scold the supporters for their rudeness.

And what did the former Blue Bulls player make of such unpleasantness from the Bath fans?

"When the crowd booed, I felt more at home," he said afterwards. There was a smile on his face, but you got the impression he meant it.

It's not too hard to understand where Hougaard's coming from. Everyone knows from common experience that a deadly, you-could- hear-a-pin-drop silence can be deeply off-putting when you're in front of an audience, whether you're trying to park the car or give a speech. A bit of background noise never does any harm; it makes you feel like you're not the centre of attention and that the full glare of scrutiny is off you.

I'm not suggesting there's room for foaming, braying yobbery in the Guinness Premiership's stands. Far from it. Certainly there's no place for personal abuse, and people who make such utterances should feel the full force of public shame and be ejected from the ground.

But a rumble or a jeer from the crowd is not the same as levelling an insult at an opposition player.

As Saturday's magnificent match against the Tigers showed, rugby stadiums – and sports stadiums generally – are at their best when they are bubbling cauldrons of emotional intensity.

On a good day, when the vibe is right and the play spectacular, a match can take a crowd through a gamut of emotions as wide-ranging and intense as those evoked by the best plays ever written and the best music ever composed.

Provided the expression of those emotions contains no suggestion of abuse or violent intent, then fans should be free to holler, whoop and whistle for the full 80 minutes.

This article is from an original column for The Bath Chronicle. To read more of my columns for the Chronicle, click here

A picture to make every Leicester supporter wince

This stunning image of Butch James scoring a last-gasp winner for Bath against Leicester Tigers on November 15, 2008, was captured by Clare Green. See the madness in Butch's eyes!

For my full report on this belter of a game, click here

The shadowy cabal that's damaging Bath Rugby

So, who is friend and who is foe of Bath Rugby's home, The Recreation Ground?

For years the shady, secretive cabal that calls itself the Friends of the Bath Recreation Ground has set about attempting to trash the club's hopes of remaining on the site.

While voicing off in the shadows and claiming to stand up for other users of the site and for the rights of nearby residents, these ‘friends’ have actually succeeded in undermining the fabric of Bath life.

Although their goal may not be to rip the guts out of Bath’s economy, that would be one of the catastrophic consequences if their campaign succeeded.

In short, the self-proclaimed friends could bring the city as well as the rugby club to its knees.
If you think I exaggerate, don’t take my word for it. Take the word of the man who knows more about the economic life of the city than anyone. He is Andrew Cooper, Bath’s city centre manager, who upon taking up his new post declared that the departure of Bath Rugby from the city would be "economic suicide".

What form would this suicide take? Here’s a scenario.

Imagine a family of four from Leicester. Dad loves his rugby and is encouraging his son to take an interest in the Tigers too. Mum and daughter like their shopping trips and enjoy a day out together. (Sorry about the nuclear family stereotypes here, but bear with me).

While dad books two tickets for Leicester’s away match against Bath, he suggests that – given how close the ground is to the pretty Georgian city’s fine shops – they make a family day out of it. Mum and daughter jump at the chance, and the family arrive in Bath armed with their wallets and purses and ready to spend.

If Bath Rugby is forced off The Rec and unable to develop an alternative stadium close to the city centre, then that will be a grave body-blow to the city’s vitality and prosperity. The buzz in Bath on match days would be gone. So too would the cash of visitors. Wanting Bath Rugby out of Bath is naive, self-destructive and ignorant. It is also deeply disrespectful of tradition, riding roughshod over Bath’s historic connections with the sport.

That the Friends of the Bath Recreation Ground – who never release details of their meetings, minutes or membership – have been allowed to get away with abusing the noun ‘friend’ for so long has rankled with me for ages. They are friends of neither the city or the rugby club.

And that’s why I’m delighted a more semantically accurate and constitutionally transparent group has come along.

Enter Peter Downey, Richard Wright and Gavin Douglas, who between them have launched the Real Friends of the Rec.

The association’s explicit aim is for a new sports stadium to be built at The Rec. And, in sharp distinction from the other ‘friends’, if you want to read more about their objectives, you can do so easily by visiting

Take a look and sign up as a member. In so doing, you’ll be able to count yourself a true friend of the city and Bath Rugby.