Monday, 29 March 2010

Olly's on track again

In my previous posting, I raised the question of just how many playmaking wizards will still be with Bath Rugby next season.
My piece neglected to mention Olly Barkley - and after his performance against Harlequins on Saturday, that now looks like a terrible omission.
Having been out for seven months and only three games into his comeback, Barkley's profile was pretty low going into the Quins match.
But his 14-point haul - which included a try, mighty long-range place-kicking and tremendous handling - has propelled him back into the limelight in a big way.
Bath coach Steve Meehan is already taling up Barkley's chances of returning to the England set-up. And the fact that England attack coach Brian Smith was at The Rec to watch Barkley's masterful display will have done his international ambitions no harm at all.
With Riki Flutey all but anonynous during the 6 Nations, the door is ajar for Barkley.
Should the 28-year-old remain injury-free over the next year-and-a-half, then I wouldn't bet against him being a pivotal part of England's 2011 World Cup outfit.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Who will wave the wand at The Rec next season?

Just as every rugby side needs its workhorses, every side needs its magicians. And I fear there could be a shortage of wands at Bath Rugby next season.
Magicians are the players who, in attack, can bewitch the opposition, either with a scything sidestep, an unpredictable play or a preternatural act of vision that puts teammates into space.
Among the Bath players who cast the most potent of spells is full-back Nick Abendanon. His runs from deep get fans on their feet and put Bath on the front foot. The fact he currently lies third in the Guinness Premiership chart for most metres covered with ball in hand is nothing short of remarkable given that he has missed six weeks with injury.
So it is all to the good that Abendanon has committed his future to Bath, despite the offer of a move to new Super 15 franchise Melbourne Rebels.
Alongside Abendanon, I’d confer magician status on Butch James, Joe Maddock and Julian Salvi. And what’s worrying me is that none of that trio may be at The Rec next season.
Salvi, not unexpectedly, is heading home to Canberra to fill the shoes vacated by George Smith at the ACT Brumbies, although there is the possibility of him playing at Bath next season until the start of the Super 15 in December.
From the moment I first met Salvi, I never felt he would stay at Bath for the full two seasons, as his deal allowed. With his partner and young son remaining in Australia, the smart money was always on him delivering a short, sharp, shock to the Guinness Premiership before heading back to the Southern Hemisphere and a tilt at the Wallaby side for the 2011 World Cup.
But what a season he has provided for Bath. Fearless and ferocious, he has proved himself a Brutus at the breakdown, playing with sufficient ruthlessness and tirelessness to reduce ex-Bath captain and openside Michael Lipman to a distant memory. Salvi’s cheeky 22 drop-outs and unlikely ruck steals will linger in the memory long after he is back in Australia.
So Salvi’s fate looks reasonably clear. But what of James and Maddock?
James is like a thoroughbred racehorse that’s been everywhere and won everything but opinion is divided about whether the mount’s knees are up to another Durban Derby. The authorities back in South Africa are pondering whether it’s worth shelling out a small fortune to get him back on his home track.
It’s clear James wants to return to South Africa, despite his declaration back in October 2008 that he was a “one club man” and would be remaining at Bath until 2012.
Frustratingly for Bath, since the start of his current three-year deal – which kicked in at the start of the current season – James has played a total of just 162 minutes of rugby, sidelined as he has been by a serious knee injury and then a heavily bruised shoulder. No wonder the Bath management are keen to get more time out of him, notwithstanding his indefatigable efforts since he joined the club in 2007.
Last week James made remarks to me that made it clear his people were seeking a way for him to return to his homeland. And the vibe coming from Durban over the past week has reinforced the impression that a return to the Sharks is likely, provided that a deal can be struck on compensating Bath for the loss of a truly world-class playmaker. One source close to the Sharks has said Bath are seeking compensation of more than £400,000.
So the big question is whether the Sharks, in conjunction with the South African Rugby Union, are prepared to buy him out of his Bath deal. The answer to that is not yet clear, although it would benefit all parties if clarity came sooner rather than later.
Clarity, too, is needed over Maddock’s future. Out of sorts at the start of the season, last year’s leading Guinness Premiership try-scorer was back in excellent form before the recent hiatus in Bath’s fixture list. He may be getting on a bit but his sidestep and killer instinct are as sharp as ever. Just ask Worcester’s Chris Latham, whom he embarrassed a few weeks ago.
As has been seen with Abendanon, players invariably perform better once they know where they’re going to be the following year. After four months of negotiations with the club, I understand Maddock is now days away from making a decision about whether to stay or pursue options back in his native New Zealand or on the Continent. It will boil down to lifestyle issues for his family as much as rugby. Bath fans will be praying the little magician stays put.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Who are you backing at the big match?

Could the impossible actually occur this weekend at the big match?
Will the team we sometimes struggle to support manage to cause an upset over the in-form side of the tournament?
Well, I don’t know what you think, but I reckon Gloucester might just do it.
The final of the LV= Cup – or the Anglo-Welsh Cup, to you and me – takes place on Sunday, and I have to confess the prospect of the Cherry and Whites taking on Northampton Saints in a winner- takes-all affair has whetted my appetite, even if the match has fallen under the radar a bit.
Along with Bath, it is Gloucester and Northampton who are now playing the most attractive rugby in England, principally because they are not afraid to take that controversial step of spinning the ball wide to their outside backs.
These three sides are living, breathing, try-scoring proof that the Saracens Attitude to Play (SAP) is not the best way to crack the Guinness Premiership nut, but is in fact a guaranteed way of sapping the joy out of the game.
Northampton speedster Chris Ashton has scored more tries this season than some entire teams have managed, all because his team-mates and coaches have grasped that – wonder of wonders – it sometimes pays to get the ball to your line-breakers.
Meanwhile, wing Matt Banahan has touched down in four of Bath’s last five games, while James Simpson-Daniel’s hat-trick for Gloucester against Cardiff Blues in the semi-final of the Anglo- Welsh at the weekend only served to underline how devastatingly effective it can be to get the ball to your speed merchants.
Bath, Gloucester and Northampton are all chucking the ball around and running in tries at the moment. And that’s why they’re winning. Contrast that with England’s efforts during the Six Nations.
With the exception of their opening fixture against Wales, when Martin Johnson’s men achieved the almost unthinkable by scoring three tries, England have lacked any semblance of a cutting edge.
The figure speaks for itself: in their last three games, England have scored two tries. And neither was from a conventional move down the backs. Mathew Tait’s try against Italy might have been the result of neat counter-attacking play and deft handing. But how often have you seen the national side spread the ball wide this Six Nations with real panache, pace and confidence?
Of course I’ll watch England’s finale on Paris on Saturday evening, and I hope to be pleasantly surprised. Perhaps England will run riot over the French, just as they did at Twickenham last season. But I won’t be holding my breath.
No, the Anglo-Welsh Cup final promises to be a far more enjoyable spectacle for English fans – a chance to watch two attack- minded sides going at it.
And I hope Gloucester win. Like Bath, the Cherry and Whites’ season has had its wobbles. Less than three months ago impatient sections of Kingsholm were calling for coach Bryan Redpath’s head. But, like Bath, Gloucester have turned things around through a blend of application, rising confidence and a readiness to put width on the ball.
The similarity of Gloucester’s tumultuous season to Bath’s must surely cause a degree of sympathy in Bath fans.
So, go on, through gritted teeth on Sunday, I dare you to say ‘Glaaaawwster’.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Boring, boring Saracens

Jason Robinson's first season as a coach isn't exactly a bed of roses, what with Sale sinking to the foot of the Guinness Premiership. But I've just started reading his autobiography, Finding My Feet, and I can't help being catapulted back to those great Billy Whizz on-field moments. You know the stuff: those scything Six Nations bursts, the try in the 2003 World Cup final, the skinning of Christophe Dominici.
A couple of days after I began reading Robinson's book, I travelled to Watford to cover Saracens' Guinness Premiership match with Bath. The contrast was stark. Here was my response in my weekly column for The Bath Chronicle:

At what price victory? If triumph on the rugby field comes at the expense of all entertainment, is there really any point in 30 blokes – and importantly, thousands of supporters – turning up for a match?

Much has been made this season of the style of play that Brendan Venter has been cultivating at Saracens. The South African director of rugby has been seeking to emulate the kind of approach that his national side has honed over the past couple of years: get your backs chasing the high ball, tackle your opponents hard, and slot over the penalty kicks when the other chaps creak.

It is a game-plan that gave Sarries, for a brief period in the first half of this season, an aura of muscular invincibility. But the cracks are now beginning to show in this remorselessly and tediously one-dimensional style of play.

Sarries' problem is that they aren't prepared to deviate from Plan A, not even for a second. They are in a tactical straitjacket, and instead of playing what's in front of them, they are playing like automatons, doing only what they have been ordered to do by the uncompromising Dr Venter.

It's one thing to read how achingly boring Saracens are, it is another thing altogether to watch how achingly boring Saracens are.

Saracens have a more-than-decent inside centre in Brad Barritt, the England Saxons midfielder. But his fly-half Derick Hougaard, as far as I could observe, didn't once opt to use him during Bath's visit to Vicarage Road on Sunday. Instead, Hougaard put high ball after high ball up into the air, balls which Matt Banahan and Nick Abendanon were more than equal to.

"Throughout the whole game they never threw one backline play at us," said Banahan to me yesterday. " I don't think our 12 or 13 made a tackle the whole game. It shows how negative their structure is."

Saracens 10-man style of rugby doesn't even play to their strengths at the moment. With a pack enervated by Six Nations absentees and the odd injury, they don't have the muscle to turn the screws at the breakdown. Moreover, it reduces to close to zero the attacking opportunities for such fleet-footed backs as full-back Alex Goode, whose career would surely be better served by him joining a club with a more open style. Bath, for example.

When Jason Robinson first dipped his toe in the waters of union in 1996, he spent the rugby league off-season at The Rec.

When the then Bath coach, Brian Ashton, opted to play the speedster at full-back, he bet Robinson – not known for his fondness of the boot – that he would be forced to make at least one kick.

Robinson ran everything out of his own 22 and Ashton lost his little wager.

Few would question Sarries' potential. But they need to leaven their kicking game with a smidgen of Robinson's spirit of '96.