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.