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