Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Luke bares his soul

It's not uncommon to find tattoos on rugby players. What's a little more unusual is finding rugby players who've painted their bodies with religious symbols.

New Bath Rugby signing Luke Watson has four tattoos. All represent his devout Christian faith. And it's clear that he thought deeply before receiving them.

One simply says 'faith'; another - 'Habakkuk 3:17' - refers to a favourite verse. Then there's a large cross on his bicep with the words ‘eternal freedom’ emblazoned on it.

And the most recent piece of body art is a crown. And it is this that Watson is most effusive about.

Describing its meaning, the South African says: “Every man is called to be a king. The world is very class-conscious and this reminds that every man in his own world, in his own right, is a king.

"He has been given the opportunity – the human right – to make decisions, he’s been given the human right to justice and the human right to be a ruler in his own world.

"We so quickly judge and classify people and we forget that they have a right to be a king in their own world.”

Of his 'eternal freedom' tattoo, he remarks: “For me that is what Christianity epitomises. God comes into your life and frees you from a sinful nature, from guilt, from condemnation, from being lost and hopeless.

"I was chatting to one of the coaches the other day and I said I don’t know how people without faith do it.

“I have had a pretty interesting and challenging life up to now and the only way I’ve made it through is by knowing that no matter what happens God has a plan."

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Firstly, apologies for the hiatus in postings on this blog. I've just become a dad again and domestic matters - believe it or not - have trumped rugby matters over the past few weeks!

Quite apart from all the nappies and crying, it's been a busy fortnight on the rugby front. An interview I did with England and Bath prop Duncan Bell sparked something of a media storm, but Duncan and I have had a clear-the-air talk and there are certainly no grudges. For the record, I think Belly is one of the great characters of English rugby and there's no question he is passionate about Bath and its fans. I just caught him when he was feeling a little raw and emotional after Bath's poor showing against Irish.

Anyway, that's history. Here's a taste of my column that's in The Bath Chronicle this week:

“We’ve copped it from all corners this past week and we’re not denying that we deserve it given our performance against London Irish,” said Bath head coach Steve Meehan on Saturday.
But while criticism may have been deserved after Bath Rugby’s showing against the Exiles, not all of the fall-out has necessarily been on the money.
Jeremy Guscott, for example, used his column in The Rugby Paper on Sunday to launch a multi-pronged critique on the current state of his former club.
For a man who spent a distinguished, success-drenched career at Bath, Guscott is always commendably unbiased in his assessments of the club to which he gave so much.
There is never any favouritism in his accounts. Indeed, if anything, it sometimes tips the other way with the ex-England and British Lions man dishing out Rec-bound volleys of criticism when others are perhaps a little more hesitant in pointing the finger.
Sunday’s piece – which, in fairness, may well have been written before Bath’s plucky, pride-restoring display against Northampton Saints – certainly pulled no punches.
Ker-pow came the first paragraph: “There is nothing to like about what is happening at Bath at the moment. I have very little sympathy with either players talking about problems with the laws or the way that the drugs scene appears to have affected the club over the last year.”
The players, wrote Guscott, have “no-one to blame but themselves”, adding that “they are not playing as a team”.
I certainly agree that Bath have often appeared disjointed this season – and that charge was admitted last week by Meehan following the clear-the-air meeting that he had with players and the rest of the coaching staff.
And there’s certainly truth in the assertion that there is no merit in Bath casting around for excuses.
But, at the same time, there’s no doubt in my mind that the turgid morass that the breakdown has become this season thanks to the law changes has stifled Meehan’s instinctive game-plan.
The new law that allows the first defender to get his hands on the ball at the ruck has made quick ball rarer than a speedy planning decision at Bath Guildhall. And the result for Bath Rugby is the disappearance of the platform from which they were so effective in 2007-08 and 2008-09.
This change in the dynamic of games has wrong-footed Bath and finding the necessary adjustments to restore the team’s poise has taken far longer than most would have anticipated.
Read more at www.thisisbath.co.uk/sport

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

The (Chateau) Grim reality of support

It’s often said that Bath is a ‘rugby city’ and that association football never gets a look-in. There’s Bath Rugby - the global brand in the heart of the city - and then there’s the poor, parochial relation down the road in Twerton-upon-Avon.
Well, that hierarchy may be about to change - however briefly.
A decent barometer of a club’s support is how many fans opt to make the journey to away games.
And this weekend, it will be Bath City FC that trumps Bath Rugby in those stakes.
On Sunday, not a single Bath Rugby Supporters’ Club coach will make the trip to Vicarage Road to watch Bath take on Saracens. The supporters’ club had to cancel its coach after just eight people signed up for the trip to Watford.
But at Twerton Park, no fewer than three coaches will roll up to take Bath City fans to Grimsby.
An estimated 250 City fans are set to make the trip north, according to its supporters’ club.
So, for the first time in goodness know how many years, it’s likely that more football fans from Bath will travel to an away game than rugby fans.
Okay, so some context is needed. Bath Rugby are playing in the LV= Anglo-Welsh Cup , a competition which - despite its new sponsor - remains very much a low priority for head coaches, while Bath City have a dream fixture in the first round of the FA Cup. And Chateau Grim, as Vicarage Road is ‘affectionately’ known, is not exactly the most salubrious of sporting locations.
But there is further context. Bath Rugby were jeered at The Rec a week last Saturday following their defeat to Newcastle Falcons, and supporters weren’t exactly backwards in coming forwards with criticism during the defeat to Saracens at the weekend.
Yet for all the jeers and the missed tackles, all the seats were taken at The Rec.
So, given all the evidence, are Bath Rugby heading for a dip in support?
On the evidence of away support, yes. On the evidence of home support, probably not.
The Rec continues to be packed to the rafters every home game, despite Bath’s failure to notch up a home win since April.
And that’s before the pantheon of big names - James, Barkley, Watson - make their first appearances of the 2009-10 campaign.
Just having those names on the teamsheet will surely act as a potent hook which which to reel in any waverers.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

What Bath Rugby need is a tea party

Bath Rugby players have been boning up on tales of the club’s glory days and legends in a bid to foster a winning spirit.
Well, the history classes don’t appear to have worked so far, but if the players are in need of some more rousing tales to put some fire in their bellies after a limp start to the season, then they need turn no further than to the fabulous club historian Peter Hall.
A couple of week’s ago I began researching a piece on how rugby fared in the city during the Second World War. One email from Peter later and I had a mine of fascinating information at my fingertips.
The tales he provided - much of it from the Chronicle’s archives - put the drugs scandals of the past year into perspective.
They also raise interesting questions about what it is to be a sports fan and what it means to stand by your team.
The equivalent of a team-worth of players from the club was killed in action during the conflict, but Bath still managed to host a steady flow of matches.
And next team you’re sipping the tipple of your choice at The Rec, remember this. During the war, the government’s Food Office declined to give the club permission to buy tea and milk for post-match drinks for the players. Anonymous donors then posted off batches of tea to ensure the players didn’t go without.
I find this tea anecdote both amusing and instructive. Amusing because it is final proof, if it were needed, that we English are indeed a nation of tea-drinkers, and instructive because, contained within it, are messages of what it means to truly love the game and the side you support.
Already, some Bath fans have been using message boards and contacting me to bellyache about the team’s start to the season and question the two-year contract extension that head coach Steve Meehan has been given.
Of course, supporters who feel passionately about their club are bound to noise off whenever they feel their team is under-performing. That is their right and what you'd expect, and many of their suggestions - such as starting Jack Cuthbert ahead of Nick Abendanon at full-back on Sunday - I would wholeheartedly agree with.
And of course I wouldn’t agree with all of Meehan’s team management techniques, either. Particularly bizarre in my book was his request for players to sit down and write a job description following their loss to Harlequins, although that’s not to say I wouldn’t enjoy casting my eye over the results.
But claims that Meehan should go at this stage of the season are impatient on an almost infantile level.
Bath have played six games. We are a mere six weeks into an eight month season. Bath endured a nightmare close season and a tough opening Guinness Premiership fixture card, so a galloping start to the season would, let’s face it, have been a surprise.
At times of change - and there’s been plenty of enforced change at the club recently - an axis of stability is needed. And especially the kind of stability afforded by a coach who has won silverware for the club and delivered successive top-four finishes.
The bellyachers could do a lot worse than swapping petulant criticism for the metaphorical batches of tea.

Tales have reached me of a disturbing occurrence on the Bath Rugby coach - and , no, they didn’t involve Justin Harrison.
David Flatman took it upon himself last week to revive the tradition of requiring new signings to belt out a song on the bus.
Well-placed sources tell me that hard man Julian Salvi opted for an effeminate version of Enrique Inglesias’ ‘classic’ Hero, while his fellow Aussie Matt Carraro embarked on a version of Waltzing Matilda with gusto until he forgot the words.
And Chris Cracknell warmed up his vocal chords with Happy Birthday in honour of Salvi and Ben Skirving.
Meanwhile, Skirving’s own performance seems to have been wiped from the club’s collective memory - a sign that it must have been pretty awful.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Come on, RFU, get tough

If the Rugby Football Union is really serious about improving the image of the game, then it could start be addressing some of the disgraceful scenes that unfolded at the end of Bath's loss to Wasps on Sunday.

And it could also start handing out meaningful sanctions for odious acts of thuggery on the pitch.

It's all very well setting up a task group that will probe past examples of cheating in an effort to burnish union's tarnished reputation, but it is infringements in the here and now that need to be adequately addressed too.

Firstly, there's the matter of referee Chris White failing to penalise Wasps for hollering at Bath fly-half Ryan Davis as he lined up his potentially match-tying conversion attempt at The Rec on Saturday.

These weren't quiet mutterings from the Wasps players. These were shouts deliberately timed to put Davis off his game.

This wasn't 'gamesmanship'. This was illegal.

White should have given Davis the opportunity to prepare his build-up again and banned the Wasps players from charging.

Another Davis – Brad, the Bath assistant coach – was magnanimous this week when I asked him about the incident.

"That's not the reason we failed to draw the game," he said. "We need to worry about our performance in attack and defence. If we get those things right we are a good enough side to climb the table."

In one respect, Brad is right. It's water under the bridge now and Bath need to concentrate on their own manifold shortcomings rather than casting around for excuses.

But imagine if Wasps had been punished and Ryan had been given the chance to take the kick without distraction. If he'd landed that, then the young fly-half would have received a terrific, timely confidence boost, as well as bagging an extra point for his team.

If Wasps' antics before the kick were bad enough, David Lemi's 'celebrations' after the kick went wide were appalling. Photographs show the winger giving the crowd and Bath players a double one-fingered salute.

The former Bristol winger issued a gushing apology yesterday, in which he used the hackneyed mitigation of 'I got a bit carried away in the heat of the moment and was very emotional'.

If the image of Lemi jumping in the air with middle fingers aloft was a PR disaster for the game, then the RFU failing to punish him for the gesture is an even bigger one.

Like many involved in the game, I'd been expecting the Union – given the events of the summer – to come down like a tonne of bricks on any wayward on-pitch behaviour. But not a bit of it.

On Tuesday, Gloucester flanker Andy Hazell was given a pathetic one-week ban for taking aim and stamping on the back of Julian Salvi's leg. And all this despite the mid-range sanction for stamping being five weeks, the lower end two. Hazell is a lucky man.

The RFU needs to bare its teeth more, otherwise the scourge of stamping, gouging and other nefarious practices will continue to blight the game.

Radio slot

I can now be heard every Thursday afternoon on Bath FM talking about all things Bath Rugby. Tune in to 107.9FM between 4.40pm and 5pm.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Will Bath be there or thereabouts this season?

Is it telling that Steve Meehan - publicly at least - isn’t setting his side any long-term goals?
The Bath head coach was reluctant to say after the Scarlets game on Friday that his aim for the forthcoming season was to win the Guinness Premiership and the Heineken Cup. Instead, he explained that he wanted to see his players behave well on and off the pitch.
If that happened, he said, then he believed that Bath Rugby would be “there or thereabouts” come the end of the season.
Clearly, Meehan is playing down expectations.
Can we take it, then, that the Australian doesn’t expect to be bringing any silverware back to The Rec come May 2010?
Well. whatever Meehan’s private thoughts, his decision not to overstate his hopes for the forthcoming season is probably wise and, given the circumstances, appropriate.
After so many enforced changes, it would be rash indeed for any head coach to confidently assert that his side was about to sweep aside all before it.
And it would be even more rash when one considers the forbidding start that Bath have for their Premiership campaign.
Bath’s first five games see them take on Gloucester, Sale and Harlequins away and Wasps and Leicester at home. If that’s not a disconcerting start to the season, then I don’t know what is.
It’s made even more disconcerting when one considers the statistic that Bath have won just one of their last six away Premiership fixtures.
Meehan, however, is refusing to be daunted and is looking on the bright side. Get off to a flier against sides such as that, he reasons, then your set up nicely for the rest of the season.
But however much the Bath boss says he is relishing getting stuck into the Premiership titans, it’s going to be a big test - and one that could determine the course of Bath’s season.
As Wasps illustrated last season, get off to a poor start and - no matter how many big names you have in your squad - it’s mighty hard to build momentum and get yourselves back in contention.
If Bath are to be contenders this season, then they need to maintain the strong home form that turned The Rec into something of a fortress last term. A side that grabs four or five points from every home game and manages to steal the odd win when it’s on the road will never be far from contention.
A fit Bath side this season that fires anywhere close to all cylinders will be hard to beat. In the backs, a line-up of Claassens, James, Banahan, Barkley, Hape, Maddock and Abendanon will surely put the fear of God into any backline in Europe, threatening as it does with speed, boot and off-load.
But of course injury means that the dream line-up, until December at least, is off the cards. Bath’s success in the opening games of the season thus hinges on how Ryan Davis - backed up by Nicky Little - orchestrates things from fly-half and how trusty his sometimes wayward boot is. In James and Barkley’s absence, Bath will also have to find a settled centre partnership. I would suggest playing the guileful Shontayne Hape at 12 and the more direct Matt Carraro at 13.
In the pack, the front row looks formidable with the arrival of Davey Wilson and there’s plenty of depth at hooker for Bath to cope should Lee Mears have another busy year of international activity. And the second row - and the pack as a whole - will be boosted by the grit that a fit-again Danny Grewcock brings.
Once it truly gels, the Bath back row should also be dominant, but there are still some question marks over its effectiveness at the breakdown. It’s an area that’s getting a lot of attention on the Bath training paddock at the moment.
But should Bath get this area ticking and present quick ball for their backs, then you’d be churlish to bet against a top four finish.

Read more of Tom Bradshaw's Bath Chronicle columns

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Has rugby's reputation ever been lower?

When Harlequins turned Bath over at The Rec towards the end of last season, Dean Richards praised his players for being 'streetwise'.

Now the true nature of the streetwise conduct that the former England number eight presided over at Quins has been exposed.

Activating a fake blood capsule during a match would, by most people's definition, constitute rank cheating rather than guilefully pushing the rules of the game.

Deano's future in rugby is now in severe jeopardy after he resigned as Harlequins director of rugby over this Bloodgate scandal, a scandal that, should you be an association football fan and need enlightening, involved wing Tom Williams faking an injury in order to procure Quins an advantage in a key Heineken Cup game.

You might say Richards did the honourable thing by falling on his sword. But he only unsheathed it when the clamour for him to go reached fever pitch and his position became utterly untenable.

Although it should be stressed that nothing has been proven against Richards, it seems fantastical that a player would trot out onto a pitch and activate some theatrical blood without someone in a senior position knowing about it.

Dean Richards comes from an era when players got away with plenty of dirty tricks. With a sly elbow into the kidneys here and the odd downward thrust of the boot there, players pushed the boundaries to see what they could get away with. Such infractions would then (usually) be forgotten about over a couple of ales.

But what happened in the Quins versus Leinster match back in April was on another level and utterly shameful. And certainly not the sort of thing that should be laughed off in the clubhouse afterwards.

What prompted someone in the Quins ranks to perpetrate or commission such a sickeningly base act of anti-sportsmanship can, at this stage, only be a topic of speculation. Some purists might blame the coming of the professional era, arguing that the thirst for a fistful of sterling brings out of the worst in teams.

But professional or amateur, such behaviour is clearly beyond the pale. And it brings the game into disrepute to an equal, if not greater, degree than the misdemeanours of the three ex-Bath Rugby players who shamed rugby last week.

Premier Rugby and the RFU, in conjunction with other administrators, have embarked on a campaign to ensure that drugs do not become any more of an issue in the sport than they have over the past 12 months. Given what's happened at Harlequins – and given the problems the game has got with gouging too – perhaps a wider campaign is needed to weed out all these appalling manifestations of gross foul play and dishonesty.

Should that fail, then perhaps mandatory lifetime bans need to be invoked. But whatever happens, union needs to act firmly and swiftly to eliminate this plague of bad behaviour.

The very reputation of the game is at stake.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Put through my paces withBath Rugby

I spent a morning with the Bath Rugby squad last week, doing one of their 'Strongman' pre-season training circuits. This involved lots of wrestling, tyre flipping, weight dragging, and other acts of torture. The results weren't pretty, as both this picture and the video link below show (WARNING: the video clip isn't for the faint-hearted, especially if you're eating breakfast).
The whole experience was a real eye-opener. I thought I was fit, but, boy, these guys take it to another level.

Tom struggles to handle a Bath Rugby training session

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Matt makes his mark

Matt Banahan made his mark for England during the summer Tests against Argentina - and now he's making another kind of mark.
As this picture shows, the chunky winger has picked up another tattoo to complement the body art on his already heavily painted arms and chest.
It looks like, thanks to Banahan, the Bath backs aren't going to be short of war paint for the coming campaign.
I heard that getting a tattoo was a painful experience. But, look closely, and it seems it's the tattoo artist who's in agony, not big Matt.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Watching the Lions - the Welsh way

This is a tad out of date now - but see previous post

'Will sell my wife for beer' screamed the bloke's T-shirt in front of me as I settled down to watch the opening Lions Test in a Pembrokeshire rugby club.

Normally it would have been an act of boneheaded stupidity for an English tourist – complete with slightly-too-red sun tan and sandy swimming shorts – to stroll alone into a Welsh rugby club. But this was Lions time, an opportunity for Celts and Englishmen to call a truce, sit side by side, holler at the ref and hurl abuse at the opposing Southern Hemisphere side.

And boy did these Welsh lads know how to hurl abuse – all of it delivered in a sing-song manner about an octave higher than my ears are used to.

And then there were the barmaids. Let's just say the one who served me had the sort of formidable frame that would have troubled even Tendai Mtawarira in the scrum.

Through the mist of beer, blue language and sighs at the Lions' missed opportunities, however, a thought involving Bath Rugby arose – and it was all courtesy of the beer monster in front of me.

If this guy would be happy to exchange his spouse for a crate of lager – as his T-shirt declared – then what would Bath Rugby be willing to exchange for a piece of top-tier silverware?

In order to secure that elusive Guinness Premiership title or Heineken Cup, would the club be willing to forego its two captains, its good name and its short-term stability?

For it seems to me that, paradoxically, the bad news that has poleaxed the club over the summer months could well yield good results.

The club's good name may well have been tarnished in the short-term because of all the allegations and resignations that have been flying around, but the fruit that grow from this bitter tree may well turn out to be sweet.

And there is evidence that this is already happening.

Before Michael Lipman's departure, Bath had some fine back row players but were seriously lacking in depth. Now they have added South African international Luke Watson and Australia A flanker Julian Salvi – both of them proven leaders – to their battalion of loose forwards, instantly giving the back row a meatier, smarter appearance.

For all his brilliance, one Michael Lipman does not equal a Luke Watson and a Julian Salvi. Ergo, Bath have done well out of their captain's departure.

Trauma can bring you closer together or tear you apart. And the hope for Bath fans has to be that the club's summer of discontent will have brought the remaining players closer together.

If that has happened – and head coach Steve Meehan seems confident that it has – then Bath could well be hungrier, more focused and more fired up for the 2009-10 campaign then they were this time last year.

Let's just hope the thoughts prompted by that misogynistic T-shirt turn out to be true.

For more, visit www.thisisbath.co.uk/bathrugby

Tom Bradshaw was away - but is now back again

Apologies for lack of postings of late. I've been on my hols. Thinking that the summer would be a period of peace and quiet on the Bath Rugby scene, I'd booked a couple of trips away. Of course, it's turned out to be anything other than quiet at The Rec, what with drugs rows, frantic summer signings and the like. Anyway, normal service should now be resumed. In a jiffy I'll post my column from last week's Bath Chronicle...

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Bath Rugby: Reasons to be cheerful

It's been a proud week for Bath Rugby. And I defy anyone to say I'm being insincere.

Last week was a real shocker for the club – and that's putting it mildly. But the past few days have actually yielded plenty of reasons for Bath fans to be cheerful and even optimistic about next season.

Just look at how many players the club has away on international duty. – and, more importantly, how well they are playing.

Wing Matt Banahan took his debut Test appearance for England in his (giant) stride when he ran out against Argentina last weekend, opening the scoring and earning praise from the notoriously fastidious Martin Johnson.

Almost as important as size and speed at international level are composure and attitude, and the Jersey Juggernaut seems to have those qualities by the shovel-load.

Talking of size, Bath's incoming 19st 3lb prop, Davey Wilson, also impressed Johnson during the Argentina match at Old Trafford. Matt Stevens may have been a massive loss to Bath Rugby, but head coach Steve Meehan's decision to sign this 24-year-old Geordie, who hopefully still has his best years ahead of him, looks increasingly astute with every passing week.

And while Wilson and Banahan could well force themselves into contention for next year's Six Nations, there are also encouraging signs to be taken from the way Bath's England Saxons contingent is bearing up in Colorado.

Stuart Hooper has been made the England A team's captain, while the remainder of the Bath cohort – Nick Abendanon, David Flatman and Peter Short – were all given a place in the Saxons' starting line-up for the victorious opener against Argentina Jaguars.

Hooper's selection as Saxons skipper is significant, as much for Bath fans as it is for England fans.

Prior to this summer's Churchill Cup campaign, the lock/back row already had plenty of leadership experience thanks to his tenure as Leeds Carnegie skipper before his switch to Bath. Now his leadership credentials have been given another boost.

With Michael Lipman and Alex Crockett having abruptly left the club, Bath need a proven leader and unifier as their new skipper.

And Hooper's exposure this summer to the captaincy at representative level could well tip the balance in his favour in Steve Meehan's mind.

Away from the Americas, Bath players Jonny Faamatuainu (Manu Samoa), Josh Ovens (England Under 20) and, of course, Lee Mears (British & Irish Lions) have been doing their club proud.

Far from their minds being frazzled by the distracting events back home, Bath's players are proving themselves on the big stage – and for that deserve a pat on the back.

Whether that form can be recreated once they return to the inevitably unsettled environment of their club, however, only time will tell.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

It's time for Bath Rugby to meet The Parents

I never thought I'd write a rugby column that invoked a Lee Mears quote and a line from the cheesy – but hugely entertaining – American comedy Meet The Parents in the same breath.

But here goes.

It may have sounded like a piece of management-speak when it first came out of his lips, but when Mears said yesterday that the disciplinary hearings being handed out to a number of Bath players were beyond his "circle of control", he actually had a good point.

The outcome of those hearings will be made public next week. And until then, it's pointless to fret and stress about what the conclusion will be, especially when you're in the southern hemisphere and trying to concentrate on representing the British Lions.

But it's not the circle of control that the Bath camp should be most worried about. It's another circle – the circle of trust – that carries the most significance.

Click here for more

As Jack Burns, the notoriously hard to please father-in-law-to-be makes clear in Meet The Parents, you're only inside the circle of trust once you've proven your commitment to a family. And once you fall out of that circle of trust, you're out for good.

The problem that Bath could well he faced with, even after the outcomes of the disciplinary hearings are made public, is that not all the players will be sure whether they belong inside or outside the club's family or not, let alone the circle of trust.

When a trauma of this magnitude hits a club – with a number of players facing allegations about their behaviour – the ripples of crisis can continue to lap at the squad's collective psyche for months afterwards.

Professional rugby players and coaches – indeed, professionals in any sport – often talk about how it's the psychological edge that can tip the balance in their favour in a particular contest. The challenge for Bath now is to devise a way of handling the fall-out from the hearings in a way that doesn't batter their morale, which is bound to be pretty low now anyway.

For that reason, the action that the management takes – when it does finally take it – needs to be decisive.

If there are any 'rotten elements', as honorary club president Jack Rowell puts it, then they all – to a man – need to be weeded out and chucked out for good.

There can, surely, be no room for 'another chance', not after what happened with Matt Stevens in January.

And once that decisive action has been taken, a line needs to be drawn in the sand so that the Bath squad can get on with the healing process as swiftly as possible.

Without a line in the sand there can be no possibility of restoring trust at the club. And trust – between player and player, and player and management – is what's desperately going to be needed after such a protracted, deep- probing inquiry.

Appointing a captain is always a crucial decision for a head coach, but the decision takes on supreme importance for Steve Meehan when you have had such a monumental quake reduce your close season to rubble.

Meehan has indicated that he will once again seek to appoint joint captains for the 2009-10 season. The men he needs filling these roles must, more than ever, be unifiers able to lead a group out of a crisis. Meehan will face many tough decisions over the next few weeks, but get this call wrong and the club's trauma may be long-lasting.

For more of my columns that have appeared in The Bath Chronicle, click here

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Harrison walks The Plank

Bath Rugby's Justin Harrison has left the club with immediate effect for 'personal reasons' (although this just happens to coincide with a club investigation into ill-discipline on a night out). Here I reflect on the combative second row's controversial season with the blue, black and whites

"Uncompromising" is how Bath Rugby's forwards coach, Mark Bakewell, described Justin Harrison when the Australian lock announced in December that he was to extend his contract at The Rec by a year.

Just how uncompromising Harrison is has been revealed by his actions of the past few days. His lawyer and agent got the ball rolling for him to leave the club with immediate effect – just as the club launched an inquiry to get to the bottom of Bath players' behaviour in London during an end-of-season blow-out.

'Uncompromising' doesn't quite succeed in capturing the sheer on-field aggro that the ex-Wallaby brought to the pitch during his brief time at Bath.

He was a man who, from the off, made it quite clear that he wanted to ruffle plenty of feathers in the Guinness Premiership. If fisticuffs were about to break out, then Harrison was in the thick of it.

His pugnacious approach culminated in him scrapping with ex-Bath skipper Steve Borthwick during the final game of the regular season against Saracens. This encounter led to Harrison being cited for alleged eye-gouging – a charge that was subsequently thrown out by a RFU disciplinary panel.

When Harrison joined Bath from Ulster for the beginning of the 2008/09 season, there were many raised eyebrows. At 34, many felt he was a little long in the tooth and would be something of a passenger during the campaign.

But the Australian defied those early critics, playing in 31 of 33 matches during the season. A pivotal moment in capturing Bath supporters' hearts came with a fearless performance against Leicester at The Rec in November, when the Australian played on despite losing consciousness at least twice.

For all his on-field aggression, however, Harrison was a different character when it came to conducting interviews with the media. On such occasions, he came across as contemplative, carrying the air of a philosopher.

"I wouldn't say it's been a distraction for me personally," he said when the Matt Stevens cocaine scandal broke in January. "It has all the ingredients of possibly providing one, but my life operates alongside rugby, not because of it.

"Most importantly, my character and integrity has been enhanced by having been associated with Matt Stevens.

"In three minutes of television interview he showed he has an enormous amount of courage and character. That's something that I couldn't hope to summon in my darkest hour and he has, somehow.

"My role as a rugby player for Bath is to perform as well as I can on Sunday and get myself in a position to do that. But my role as a human being, and as a mate of Matt's, is to support him in anyway I can."

But there could always be a hint of menace in what he said, even when it was meant as a joke.

Commenting on the foot injury of his Bath team mate and former England lock Danny Grewcock, Harrison remarked wryly to me in February: "I spent most of my career trying to injure Danny – and now I'm wishing that he wasn't."

The thing is, both parts of that sentence were probably true.

The Sydney-born lock, who made 34 test appearances for Australia, came to Bath with some baggage.

In March 2005, while playing for the New South Wales Waratahs, Harrison admitted racially abusing Chumani Booi in a Super 12 match in South Africa.

In the subsequent tribunal, Harrison issued a sufficiently heartfelt apology for the panel to suspend a $20,000 fine. During his mea culpa, Harrison told the panel he wanted to do the "best to redeem whatever irreversible damage I have done to my own reputation."

Given the suddenness of his departure from The Rec in such unhappy circumstances, it may well be that this Jekyll and Hyde personality will once again have to work hard to redeem himself.

To read my latest column on theturmoil at Bath Rugby, click here

Thursday, 14 May 2009

It's high time Bath Rugby were lifted out of this training limbo

From the moment Leicester unveiled their squad ahead of the Guinness Premiership semi on Saturday, I always felt things looked a bit ominous for Bath.

That Richard Cockerill had the confidence to field an essentially unchanged side from the one that had just endured a marathon Heineken Cup semi-final against Cardiff spoke volumes about the players' fitness, durability and appetite for victory.

Then there was Leicester's subs' bench, jam-packed with internationals and brimming with menace.

With Bath plagued by injuries to a cohort of senior players – James, Lipman, Browne, Grewcock – it almost looked a bit of an uneven contest.

But Bath aren't only mismatched on the pitch at the moment. They are somewhat mismatched off it, too.

Click here for more

While Leicester Tigers crack on with developing Welford Road into a super-stadium, Bath labour on with sub-standard facilities – facilities that most clubs would be embarrassed of.

Bath Rugby chief executive Bob Calleja is all too aware of how inadequate many of the club's facilities are, describing the Kronenbourg Stand at The Rec to me recently as looking "like a cowshed".

Lambridge Training Ground, with its ramshackle hut and invariably defaced sign, is also a sorry sight, although in a glorious location.

And that's why, as we reveal in today's Chronicle, the club is absolutely determined to push on with developing a supremely well-equipped training base at Lambridge that, if built, would be the envy of every other side in the land.

The plans are ready; the money is in place; the club is anxious to crack on and improve the site.

But, as ever in Bath, things are not as simple as that. There is always a 20lbspanner lurking nearby, ready to be lobbed violently into the works.

The particular spanner in question here is this. Bath Rugby will not be able to push on with improving Lambridge unless councillors on Bath and North East Somerset Council give the green light for a new park-and-ride site to be developed at Bathampton Meadows. Until that happens, there is always the prospect that B&NES will return to its original plan of buying up Lambridge and building the park-and-ride on there instead.

Unbelievably, the idea of developing a park-and-ride at Lambridge was mooted almost two decades ago. Yet there is still no clear future for the site.

This is a fiasco. That Lambridge remains in limbo to this day should be a huge embarrassment to the elected representatives and full-time public officials who, over the years, have been paid out of the public purse to sort it out.

Over the past two decades there have been various planning applications and various false dawns, all of which petered out amid an orgy of pen-pushing, spineless indecision and a lack of political will.

Bob Calleja should be knighted – no, beatified – for his patience. I'd have stormed the Guildhall with Bath Rugby flags by now, baying for blood as I went.

The political process has failed Bath Rugby and made a laughing stock of the local authority. But B&NES has an opportunity to redeem itself.

Next Wednesday – May 20 – its development control committee will meet to discuss the application for the park-and-ride site at Bathampton Meadows. Councillors will have the chance to set the ball rolling for this long overdue project, and in so doing give Bath Rugby a firm framework within which to improve its training facilities.

I hope the council takes decisive action. But experience points the other way and suggests a deferment will be the order of the day, condemning the club and Lambridge to more limbo.

Bath Rugby's hopes of developing The Rec are already being delayed by ponderous, obfuscating officialdom, so the club deserves a break on the Lambridge front.

Bath Rugby is one of the jewels in Bath's glittering crown. It's about time it was treated by some in this city with something other than contempt.

This post is taken from my weekly column in The Bath Chronicle. To read more of my whinging diatribes, as well as a column by Bath Rugby prop Duncan Bell, just click on this sentence.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Why Bath Rugby has to stay at The Rec

Here are a few of my thoughts on just why Bath Rugby simply must be given the green light to expand on The Rec. A Keep Rugby at The Rec supplement will appear in The Bath Chronicle on May 7.

Fans mingle by the weir, The Boater pub is a sea of blue. black and white, and laughter drifts up from besides the Riverside Cafe.
It must be match day at The Rec. And what a special place at which to hold a game of rugby.
Two of the Premierships most snazzy new-build grounds are Worcester and Northampton. But as magnificent as these two teams’ facilities are, they are out-of-town affairs, dumped by the best arterial road and removed from the towns they represent.
Stroll into Bath on a match day, however, and the atmosphere is so intense you can almost touch it.
Opposition fans pop in and out of the city centre shops, while Bath Rugby flags are draped from a host of pubs.
And where else in the world can you watch a game of rugby with an abbey looking down on you and an elegant Georgian portico just a stone’s throw away over the river?
From the top of the Kronenbourg Stand, where the press box is, the setting gets even better. The southern slopes of the city give the location a rural feel, and Sham Castle reminds you that you are in a place that’s both rich in history and a little quirky.
Yet this unique aspect of Bath life - enjoyed by so many generations for so many decades - could be taken away if Bath Rugby are refused permission to develop The Rec.
This is not something that the Bath faithful want to contemplate. Yet the fans are all too aware that, if the club is to flourish, then financial imperatives - and Premiership regulations - dictate that Bath Rugby needs a greater capacity than the current 10,600.
And should the Charity Commission refuse to budge, then the only way of boosting the club’s capacity may be to move.
Twenty-six-year-old fan Joe Master embodies this attitude, torn as he is between wanting Bath Rugby to remain at The Rec and wanting his club to prosper.
“Of course it would be nice for the club to stay at The Recreation Ground,” says Joe, 20 minutes before Bath begin their final game of the regular season against Saracens. “The ideal scenario would be to develop this place.
“On a day like this it’s glorious - and on match days the club brings a lot of business into the city.
“But we need a bigger stadium. From a financial point of view we need more people coming through the gates.
“The most important thing is that Bath Rugby remains in the city. I wouldn’t want to see the club move to Swindon or somewhere like that. No way.”
After the game, I catch up with my mate Graham - a Gloucester fan.
He’s had a fair amount of misery to endure over the past couple of weeks thanks to an abysmal run of results, but at least - he says - his side has a ground it knows it’s staying at.
“I’d love to see Bath forced out to Swindon,” he says, his malice presumably fuelled by another loss for the cherry-and-whites. “Us Gloucester fans would love to see that.”
Surely, on top of everything else, the city of Bath can’t allow Gloucester supporters to be given that kind of satisfaction?

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Shontayne Hape interview

Shontayne Hape has been impressive for Bath Rugby recently. Click the play button on the video clip below to see what the rugby league convert had to say to me yesterday ahead of Bath's final game of the regular season against Saracens on Saturday.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

When technology lets you down - many miles from home

Being 'multi-media' is an absolute must for journalists these days. The days of calling yourself a 'print journalist' or a 'broadcast journalist' or an 'online journalist' are gone. Or at least they should be for anyone who hopes to stay in this business.
Despite my background being in newspapers, I'm pretty comfortable with all this online stuff and think I look okay in front of a camera (although my wife disagrees!)
Having begun my career as a news reporter, my shorthand is fairly reliable. But when covering rugby press conferences and doing face-to-face interviews with players, I find it easier to develop a relationship with whoever I'm interviewing if I use a digital dictaphone. That way you can retain eye contact and it all seems more relaxed.
So my trusty dictaphone was among the kit I took with me when I made the long journey up to Newcastle to cover Bath's game against the Falcons on Sunday.
But when it came to playing back my post-match interview with Michael Claassens, what do you think happened?
White noise, that's what happened. The batteries had run down - although the indicator on the screen of my dictaphone hadn't suggested there was a problem.
It would have been bad enough if it was a home game. But to have travelled all the way up to the North East...
Sorry Michael and sorry readers. But I've learnt my lesson. Rest assured, from now on those batteries will be replaced with clockwork regularity.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Billy Whizz dashes in for some greasy grub

"Sorry, fellas, do you mind if I take a few pasties?"

So spoke a suited and booted Jason Robinson as he peered round the door to the pokey press room at Edgeley Park on Friday night, an hour-and-a-half before the Sharks kicked-off against Bath Rugby.

"I'd love to stay and talk to you guys," he said to me and another surprised early arrival, "but I need to keep the management happy."

And off scampered the World Cup winner, clutching four of south Manchester's finest meat and potatoes with not a paper napkin in sight.

Billy Whizz OBE is back. And I think the Guinness Premiership is going to be a better place because of it.

Read the rest of my reflections on Jason's return to the Premiership by reading my column in The Bath Chronicle

Thursday, 26 March 2009

So which former Bath Rugby star will be appearing alongside Morgan Freeman?

It appears that David Barnes is not only a big cheese in the Professional Rugby Players' Association - he also has contacts in the world of film....

From the Bath Chronicle...

"Former Bath Rugby favourite Zak Feaunati is to appear in a Hollywood film directed by Clint Eastwood.

The 34-year-old Samoan forward who spent five years at The Rec is to play rugby legend Jonah Lomu in a film about the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

New Zealand-born Feaunati, who retired last season, will appear alongside Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.

Feaunati, now the director of rugby at a school in the Midlands, plays Jonah Lomu in The Human Factor, which centres on the relationship between then South African president Nelson Mandela and that nation's captain Fran├žois Pienaar.

Freeman plays Mandela in the movie, for which Feaunati was chosen following a screen test in London after being recommended by Bath prop David Barnes, who is also chairman of the Professional Rugby Players' Association.

Click here!

The test saw him demonstrate the famous haka ritual which has become the hallmark of the All Blacks ahead of international rugby games.

Feaunati told the BBC: "I had to talk about myself for the casting director, and then she asked me to do the haka.

"I might have scared one or two of the ladies, but I guess it did the trick."

The competition was staged in South Africa in 1995 and was won by the host nation.

Feaunati, who won 13 international caps for Samoa, added: "The first call I got about it was from my old team-mate David Barnes, asking me if I wanted to be in a Clint Eastwood film, so I was 99 per cent sure it was a prank.

"But when I got a further call from the PRPA offices, it dawned on me that maybe this was serious."

He made 131 appearances for Bath between 2003 and last summer."

Bath face a devilish trip up north

The Bath Rugby squad that's travelling north to face Sale Sharks will be making their trip to Edgeley Park via Old Trafford on Friday.

In order to put a bit of variety into the players' day, head coach Steve Meehan has decided that a trip to the home of Manchester United is in order.

This doesn't necessarily augur well. Like Bath, United are in the hunt for both domestic and European glory. But their last two results have been utterly disastrous – a stuffing from arch-rivals Liverpool and a red card fiesta against Fulham.

Let's hope United's dip in form – and ill-discipline – doesn't rub off on their West Country visitors as they enjoy a couple of days in the North West.

But having said all that, there is something apt about Bath visiting the home of the Red Devils – and that's because Bath themselves have a devilishly tricky fortnight coming up.

Click here!

As I explained in this column last week, squad management is going to be absolutely crucial as Bath face three Guinness Premiership matches in eight days followed by a Heineken Cup quarter-final in Leicester.

Knowing who to rest and when is the conundrum that Meehan is having to wrestle with on a daily basis.

Looking at the hints coming out of the Bath camp, it looks as though Meehan will rest many of his big guns against Sale, in the hope that a young, enthusiastic team will still be able to defeat a Sharks side that has lost four matches on the bounce in the Premiership.

The big guns will then be rolled out for Bath's home matches against Wasps on Wednesday and Harlequins a week on Saturday.

These are two games that Meehan will be targeting as must-wins – and for different reasons.

Wasps may not be threatening for a play-off berth but they are a team that have mucked around with Bath's Premiership schedule.

A game that was initially postponed at the last moment because of concerns from Wasps coach Shaun Edwards over the hardness of the pitch has been put off and put off.

It now falls on a date that, from Meehan's and Bath's perspective, couldn't be worse.

Meehan is still irked by the way this game has been rearranged, and he will be wanting to win it – not only because it is at home but to get one over on his Wasps counterpart and the officials who settled on such a silly rescheduled date.

Unlike Wasps, Harlequins are very much in the frame for a play-off spot and are therefore a key target for Bath.

To lose against the London-based club at home at such a crucial stage of the season could mortally wound Bath's play-off ambitions, and Meehan will therefore be aiming to field his strongest possible side for that encounter on April 4.

Meehan's selection policy is also being influenced by the terms of the English clubs' agreement with the RFU.

Under that agreement, players in the England Elite Playing Squad face restrictions over how many club games they can play over a certain period. One consequence of this is that Lee Mears will only be able to play in two out of the next three Premiership matches.

But with the way Hurricane Hawkins is playing at the moment, that probably won't cause too many restless hours for Meehan.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

When should you rest your top players?

Sale's phalanx of international stars will enjoy no pause for breath following the end of the Six Nations.

The Sharks have revealed that a host of their internationals will be thrown right back into the Guinness Premiership fray on Friday at Edgeley Park (click here for the latest on this).

Bath, meanwhile, look certain to rest a host of players. Friday's match marks the start of three games in eight days for Bath, and Steve Meehan is seeking to rest some of this first XV ahead of his side's home matches next week against Wasps and Harlequins.

But with Sale having lost their last four GP games, Bath have every chance of notching up an away win in Stockport on Friday.

They need to seize that opportunity.

Resting too many of his first-string side could backfire for Meehan and Bath.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Bath lose - and go up the table

If ever more evidence were needed to show that the margin between sides in the Guinness Premiership is paper thin, then it came at the weekend.

Play-off hopefuls Sale were stuffed by Northampton and the team-of-the-moment Newcastle Falcons beat Harlequins, another play-off contender.

Such results mean that Bath Rugby, despite losing to Saracens, have actually climbed the table from fifth to fourth courtesy of a losing bonus point.

Elsewhere in the league, Wasps came within a whisker of beating top-of-the-table Gloucester, and Bristol almost beat Leicester Tigers.

This weekend confirmed that there are no easy matches in this league. The race to get in the top four to secure a play-off place is still wide open with five rounds to go.

Mine's a hog's head, please

What's the recipe for Bath Rugby to enjoy success this season? Well, head coach Steve Meehan is hoping it will be hot water and a hog roast. But having whetted your appetite, I'll return to that later.

Nothing other than a sound drubbing of Bristol would have been good enough for Bath Rugby at the weekend – and they didn't disappoint.

But although it was mission accomplished on Saturday, the chock-a-block fixture card facing Bath over the next three weeks means there is going to be little time to pause for breath.

Bath face something of a blitzkrieg of matches over the next three weeks – and squad management is going to be absolutely key if the side is to win any silverware this season.

The figures are the stuff of nightmares for strength and conditioning coaches: five games in 19 days, including a nasty run of Sale, Wasps and Harlequins in the space of just nine days.

Click here!

And there's no let up after that.

As soon as Bath come off their five-games-in-less-than- three-weeks treadmill, they face Leicester at The Walker's Stadium in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup.

So while most Guinness Premiership sides will enjoy the weekend off on April 11 and 12 before their final two matches of the regular season, Bath face what will inevitably be an extremely physical contest in the East Midlands.

It's going to be a demanding run-in for the men at The Rec, and the squad's depth and the players' stamina and focus will be put under stress.

So, are they up to it?

That brings me back to the hog roast and the hot water.

A congested schedule means something has to give on the training ground – and Meehan is already endeavouring to lighten the load for his players in midweek.

Following the win over Bristol, Meehan immediately announced he would be giving his players three days off, presumably mindful of the Herculean labours that await them over the next few weeks.

And after this Sunday's match, Meehan has further tricks up his sleeve in order to keep his men fresh. The squad will be heading to a certain popular city centre restaurant for a slap up meal involving plenty of pork, as well as taking to the rejuvenating waters of the Thermae Bath Spa for a relaxing dip.

Such touches are wise.

With so many big matches in such quick succession, it's crucial that Meehan enables his players to take their mind off rugby in between games and put their feet up.

Splashing about in the water could be just the tonic. Although, come to think of it, taking a dip at the spa might remind them of rugby after all – do you remember those conditions for the Toulouse game?

This is taken from my column in The Bath Chronicle. Click here for more.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

A fine weekend for a West Country derby

Bristol travel to The Rec for a showdown with Bath Rugby on Saturday.

If it's dry, expect Bath to win handsomely. If it rains, there could be a surprise.

Click on the video below to see what Bath wing Andrew Higgins - who left The Mem for The Rec six years ago - is thinking ahead of the clash.

Why anger can be good

It's hard to know who was angrier on Saturday afternoon, Steve Meehan (pictured) or Martin Johnson.

Certainly both coaches had good cause for rising blood pressure.

England's RBS 6 Nations loss at Croke Park saw them slide to eighth in the world union rankings, while Bath's defeat against Gloucester saw them drop out of the play-off zone in the Guinness Premiership, although they do have at least one game in hand over their principal rivals.

England boss Johnson performed a terrifyingly accurate impersonation of the Incredible Hulk after another afternoon of asinine ill-discipline, typified by Danny Care moronic shoulder charge on Marcus Horan. Clearly, it was – yet again – England's soaring penalty-count that got under Johnson's skin.

And while Bath conceded more than their share of penalties too, the causes of Meehan's anger following the game at Kingsholm were more complex.

Click here!

First there were the individual errors; then some refereeing decisions that, to be polite, were plain wrong; and then, ultimately, there was the fact that – after a titanic, enthralling game – Bath emerged not a single point better off in the Premiership.

Meehan's frustration was manifested through some terse responses in the post-match press conference – but who could blame him? Bath, having played with such heart, deserved at least a crumb of comfort.

But if you want to find real anger among coaches in the England game this week, then pop along to Bath Spa station and catch a train to Watford.

There, Saracens boss Eddie Jones has had to cope with the sight of 19 stone hulks weeping on the training ground after the South African consortium that owns the club announced it would be culling 15 of the squad's 38 senior players.

While evidently furious at the bluntness of the foreign owners' behaviour, Jones, who last month announced he would be leaving the club come the end of the current campaign, has managed to maintain a statesman-like dignity, too.

"I'm 100 per cent disappointed," Jones told the BBC. "I wanted to build a strong club, the best in Europe.

"I've never seen anything like it. Some of the guys have been in tears all week. But I've told the players I am fighting their corner, and my job is to leave the club in the best shape I can. I guarantee I will."

Jones is a man who's been known to drop a few wisecracks in press conferences. He is a man of humour, as well as being a first-class coach.

But there is no wisecracking here. You can hear the desperation and the anger, and you can hear the almost father-like defensiveness towards his players.

Anger, when controlled and directed into the right channels, can be a useful emotion in rugby. Anyone who's been in a pep talk ahead of a match against a bogey team knows that.

Now more than ever is the time for Jones and the Sarries players to channel their anger in the right way.

The senior players who have been told they are not wanted must remain positive and seek to vent their anger in the gym and in competitive play, so they make themselves attractive to other clubs.

But what about Bath? Surely they are, to a man, angry at having picked up just two points from there last two games.

And the best way to relieve that anger is to serve up a bonus-try drubbing of Bristol at The Rec this weekend.

For more of Tom's thoughts, click here

Monday, 23 February 2009

Bath in a stew over Irish slip-up

It was with an unpleasant blend of anguish and disbelief that The Rec faithful watched Bath Rugby put in the kind of woeful second half performance upon which season's founder.

To see London Irish slice through the home side with the ease of the proverbial hot knife through butter was deeply dispiriting for those who, up until 3pm on Saturday, had believed that this was to be Bath's season.

Now they're probably revising such a view.
Championship-winning sides do not surrender 17-0 half-time leads in the slothful, distracted manner in which Bath played the second 40-minute period. Some of the missed tackles were appalling, and enough to have had head coach Steve Meehan and defence coach Brad Davis seething with frustration.
But from such negatives, positives can come. The players need to hold this second half performance before their minds - and use it as a spur to ensure it never happens again.

Let's take a Rec-ing ball to stadium debate

There's a lot of talk from within the Bath camp at the moment about the side gearing up to enter the business end of the season.
But come the season's end, is Bath Rugby going to be a viable business?
The B-word can be a dirty word for union purists but in this professional era of bottom lines, stadium capacity demands and salary caps, Bath Rugby – like the rest of the country's top-flight teams – is a business as much as it is a rugby club, and the power of sterling cannot be ignored.
Now, just for a second, imagine the following.
It's late February. Bath are third from bottom in the Guinness Premiership and their Heineken Cup ambitions are dead. They look destined for mid-to-bottom-of-the-table mediocrity.
Away from the pitch, it is not clear where they are going to be playing their home games next season. It is not even clear whether, if they manage to stay at The Rec, they will have permission for the current stands to stay in place. The authorities that have ultimate jurisdiction over what happens at the site are giving off negative vibes over the club's long, medium and even short-term there.
Would the word crisis be used in such circumstances?
Of course it would. Imminent homelessness or the prospect of a sharp reduction in the club's crowd capacity at its ramshackle current home is an intolerable position for a top-flight club to be in.
The fact of the matter is that Bath's on-pitch success this season is, to a large degree, glossing over the growing crisis off it.
But because all is well in the Premiership and because the European campaign remains on track, the crisis away from the pitch loses its immediacy and urgency.
If Bath were having a dud season, then I'd wager that the homelessness issue would appear far more pressing and the debate about the club's future would be more vociferous, possibly even plain nasty.
That is not to say, of course, that the issue of Bath's future at The Rec isn't being keenly commented on and discussed. Members of the Real Friends of The Rec and contributors to supporters' website bathrugbyere are among those at the heart of this debate, and this paper carries almost weekly updates on the convoluted discussions between the Recreation Ground Trustees, the Charity Commission and the club itself.
But on the whole, these discussions are being conducted in, on the face of it at least, a restrained, gentlemanly way. The parties involved may have frustrations and reservations about the way other parties are going about the issue but these criticisms are being couched in soft, diplomatic terms.
Sooner or later, however, and I hope it is sooner, there are going to be ructions. And why do I want ructions? Because this whole debate needs to be brought to a head – quickly. Firm deadlines need to be imposed so the club and supporters alike can escape this purgatory and know exactly where they stand.
Bath Rugby cannot draw up a meaningful business plan in this current state of limbo. And if it isn't able to draw up a plan, then its future is uncertain.
Silverware may well be on its way to Bath this year but whether or not the trophy cabinet that houses it will be in Bath, Swindon, Corsham or Timbuktoo is still, sadly, anyone's guess.

For more of Tom's thoughts on Bath Rugby and the state of English union, click here

Thursday, 12 February 2009

England need new blood in centres

Falling back on a tried and tested formula is an instinct in us all.
We had a good holiday in France last year – let’s book it again. They have nice ale at The Anchor – let’s go for a pint there again. Mike Tindall’s played well for us in the centre before – let’s pick him again.
But fortune can favour those willing to depart from the frequently trodden path. For those plucky enough to take a bold decision that takes you into unknown territory, the rewards can be great.
And that applies on the rugby pitch just as much as it does off it.
That Mike Tindall is a superb centre of world renown is not open to question. But recalling him when things aren’t clicking in the England centres is not the sort of creative, progressive move that Martin Johnson should be making as he seeks to build a national team for the future.
Tindall is a known quantity. His bag of tricks contains no surprises. All the opposition teams and coaches will have video analysed him until the VCR conks out. He is unlikely to be the man who will rouse the England backline to new creative heights.
But what of the other centres that Johnson has at his disposal?
When Tindall tweaked his back during a weights session last week, it was Newcastle Falcon Jamie Noon that Johnson fell back on.
But for all his muscle and reliability in defence, Noon – like Tindall – lacks the attacking guile and flair that is so desperately needed to inject sparkle into a backline that is too often bereft of imagination, creativity and the ability to spring a surprise.
Both Noon and Tindall can be crash ball carriers. But trying to gain the hard yards by thundering up the middle and hoping to break the tackle with a Maori sidestep ain’t going to work against a midfield that’s as resolute and watchful as, say, Wales’.
No. England need in the number 13 shirt someone who is both inventive and reliable; both smart and solid; both capable of conjuring up a spot of magic and able to hold the defensive line steady.
Step forward Alex Crockett.
That Crockett hasn’t been picked for at least the Saxons this season is a selection outrage.
It’s been said by some – including Bath supporters – that Crockett is a "good club player"; the kind of guy who provides the solid spine around which a strong Premiership side can be built, but not of international calibre.
Tosh. The Bath co-captain is far, far more than that.
Perhaps a year or so ago you wouldn’t have been able to use the words ‘magic’ and ‘Alex Crockett’ in the same sentence very often. He may have been dependable, but did he really have the brilliance to be elevated into contention for an international place?
Now I think the answer is a definite yes. Think of that deft kick into Matt Banahan’s path for the winning try against Sale – a kick that Bath head coach Steve Meehan described as showing the sort of touch you normally find at Augusta in the US Masters. Think of the vision and composure that enabled him to lob that pass to Butch James for the fly-half’s last-gasp winner against Leicester at The Rec.
Both those tricks showed Crockett to be a match-winner, as well as a safe pair of hands.
Martin Johnson should give Crockett the chance on the international stage that this talented player so craves and deserves.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Bath neither home nor dry

As Bath’s players held their mud-smeared arms aloft and extended soggy embraces to one another following the lowest-scoring match in Heineken Cup history, it was difficult to know precisely what they were celebrating.
Perhaps it was because the draw with Toulouse was enough to ensure they finished top of Pool 5. Perhaps it was because, following Matt Stevens’ admission of drug-taking and the subsequent media attention, they were relieved to have got through a tough week muddied but unbowed. Or perhaps, given the atrocious – and almost unplayable – conditions caused by the hailstorm and rain that lashed The Rec, they were relieved not to have drowned.
But whatever they were celebrating on Sunday, the team had failed to secure that all-important home fixture at the first knock-out stage.
History and statistics show that home advantage in the cup’s quarter-finals significantly shorten the odds on a side reaching the final four. But Bath will take heart from the fact that they defeated Leicester – whom they have once again drawn in the quarters – at the same stage of the competition in 2006.
The pitch may have been watery, but it was not a watery grave for either team. Wasps’ defeat in Castres earlier in the afternoon had ensured that both Bath and Toulouse would qualify. This, along with the weather, took some of the fizz out of the encounter for the crowd. Rather than being an all-or-nothing contest, the match was reduced to being all about whether either side could snatch a win and – with it – a home quarter-final.
Oddly, head coach Meehan said after the game that he had not informed his players of results elsewhere in the competition before they ran out on to The Rec.
That Meehan is among the best coaches in Europe is not open to doubt, but there’s a strong case for arguing this was a mistake.
Had his players known that they would qualify for an away quarter-final regardless of whether they lost or drew, but that only victory would be enough for a home match, then they would surely have chanced their arm with a drop goal attempt in the dying seconds as the Bath pack set up camp in the Toulouse 22.
The conditions for drop goal kicking were indeed appalling, as fly-half Butch James and inside centre Shaun Berne had shown in the first-half with two wayward attempts.
But if such an effort in the dying moments had gone over, then Bath would have been at home in the next round. If it had come up short or gone wide, then the worse that could have happened is that Toulouse would have galloped the length of the pitch and scored, leaving Bath the prospect of an away quarter-final.
Which is what they’ve got anyway...

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Stevens' story puts Rec debacle in perspective

The Rec or recreational drugs. That was the issue in front of me before I wrote this column.
At the start of this week – following the Charity Commission's latest negative statement about Bath Rugby's bid to stay at their historic home – I was all psyched up to fire off a tirade about the depressingly turbid negotiations surrounding the club's future at The Recreation Ground.
But then came the saddening and shocking news of Matt Stevens' drug problem.
Instantly, any idea of writing about The Rec was blown out of the water. There was only one option: and that was to write about Matt.
And, if you'll indulge me for a second, I think my reaction says a lot.
It says that, despite all the worrying, fretting, arguing, bickering, bitching and eye-rolling that goes on about where Bath will be playing next year or next decade, it's the players above all else that matter.
Without the players we have no game; and without the game we have no need for stadiums.
Stadiums without the magic of gifted players are dead, redundant places. What is needed to bring them alive is human drama.
And the tale of the fall from grace from the undeniably gifted Matt Stevens is a human – all too human – story.
Getting philosophical for a moment, the ancient Greeks defined a tragic hero as a man who in all respects exceeds the standards of normal men. In all respects, that is, other than one. And that one failing is his tragic flaw – the flaw that will knock him off his pedestal and bring him down onto the rocks.
At first Matt Stevens seems to fit this template almost too neatly.
He is a fine, strong athlete (at 26 he already has 32 England caps to his name). He has a beautiful voice that saw him appear before millions on television's Celebrity X Factor. He has riches, both through his personal success playing for Bath and England, and through his wealthy family in South Africa. He has done much for charity, earning the praise of no less a figure than Nelson Mandela. He has a kind and friendly manner that endears him to all he meets, and which made him one of the most popular public figures in Bath.
Such is his fame among non-rugby fans that he's probably one of the few rugby players your young niece can name.
He had already accomplished great things and was, so it seemed, marked out for even greater accomplishments.
But then emerged the flaw. And unlike your classic Shakespearean hero, it wasn't pride that was his downfall – it was something far more seedy: drugs.
There is, however, hope.
Unlike a tragic hero, Stevens' decline is not irrevocable.
Although having to face his demons will be a painful process, he still has time to do this before returning to the fray a fitter, healthier and more focused rugby player.
When I interviewed Stevens last week for the Chronicle's website, www.thisisbath.co.uk, he seemed nervy and on-edge. His drugs test had been taken a month before the interview, and he must have known the truth would soon be out.
And so it has come to pass. But with the support and love of those closest to him – and once he has served the inevitable ban – Stevens can overcome this and be back in a Bath kit. That's what he needs to remember – and what the club and city needs to remember, too.