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.

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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.

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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.