Thursday, 29 July 2010

Why Jonny F didn't fit at Bath anymore

Jonny Fa'amatuainu's exit from The Rec not only represents the departure of a flamboyant character from Bath Rugby. More significantly, it is symbolic of a departure in strategy that has been brewing at the club for half a year.

Not long after he arrived at Bath a year ago, chief executive Nick Blofeld began emphasising a formula that arguably has little room for players of Fa'amatuainu's mould.

That formula requires graft and combativeness in the pack, blended with audacity in the backs.

"We need flair behind the pack but bloody-mindedness up front," Blofeld said towards the end of last season, just as Fa'amatuainu was getting used to warming the replacements' bench, before dropping out of the match-day squad completely.

And while it was head coach Steve Meehan who was having the final say over selection issues, Blofeld's comment seemed to encapsulate the club's hardening view that running rugby is all good and well – but it cannot function properly without a more solid, snarling and downright aggressive platform.

Fa'amatuainu, a back-row player who can also play at lock, is very much a 'flair' player. But as Bath have discovered in various scraps at the breakdown over the past couple of seasons, it's guts married to guile that secures the kind of ball necessary for victory, not flair in the loose.

If Bath's early-1990s heyday is to be revived, then what's required is the development of a back-row spine comparable to the one once provided by the likes of John Hall and Andy Robinson.

Hall, Robinson and Co's ferocity, physical presence and guts made Bath potent at the breakdown. They put in the donkey work and were widely feared. Opponents knew they would be spared no quarter – and that Hall and Robinson would always be in the thick of things.

Fa'amatuainu, for all his virtues, is not of that ilk. Too often last season he lurked on the fringes of the breakdown rather than getting in people's faces.

The Samoan's virtues are manifold. Chief among them is his speed, illustrated to great effect last season when he chased down Worcester wing Miles Benjamin – certainly no slouch – with a few graceful leaps and the extension of one of those long arms.

Such pace was an asset in the loose too, although his elaborate one- handed carries sometimes only served to reinforce the image of him as something of a showman.

Fa'amatuainu's release to Scarlets on a season-long loan – after which he will be out of contract at Bath – is probably good for all parties.

With the addition of Lewis Moody and Simon Taylor to the back row, and flanker Josh Ovens stepping up from Bath's academy to the first-team squad, Fa'amatuainu was destined to spend the season on the sidelines. That would have been demotivating for him and having demotivated players around can have a draining effect on the rest of the squad.

For his part, Fa'amatuainu has a chance of enjoying some regular first-team action at Parc Y Scarlets – and that's the only type of action that matters to an international player in the run up to a World Cup.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Lewis Moody - his first interview as a Bath Rugby player

I've interviewed Lewis Moody a couple of times before, but today was the first time I had spoken to him while he was wearing the blue, black and white of Bath Rugby.
Watch the video - the first interview he has given as a Bath player after 14 years with Leicester Tigers.

A profile piece I've done on Moody based on a longer, off-camera interview can be read in the Thursday, July 29 edition of The Bath Chronicle.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Justice - one year on

A couple of weeks ago I issued a cyber-sermon on the nefarious thuggery of Bakkies Botha in the opening match of the Tr-Nations. To his credit, the big man has subsequently appeared suitably contrite for his craven headbutt on Jimmy Cowan.
It jogged memories of a column I wrote almost exactly a year prior to that. In this earlier column, I criticised the disrespect shown to the game's authorities by the South African team during their infamous 'Justice 4 Bakkies' armband protest against the British Lions.
With the season almost upon us, I thought it was worth reprising it - not least because I'd hate to see any more nonsense directed toward the officials via inapproriate channels. Goodness knows there was enough of that from Saracens in the Premiership last season.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

The debilitating power of doubt

Read my column in today's Bath Chronicle on the sportsman's greatest poison: doubt.
Doubting Thomas

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Sam Vesty's the new lord of the manor at Bath

Sam Vesty may have been at Bath Rugby for less than a month, but he is already lording it over his team-mates.
The 28-year-old is currently slumming it at Farleigh House - the country residence that's at the heart of Bath's new 130-acre headquarters in Farleigh Hungerford, nine miles outside the city.
Bath chairman Bruce Craig took out a long-term lease on the imposing Somerset country estate when he bought the club in April.
The house and its grounds are currently being adapted so they can accommodate the club's entire backroom staff, as well as all the training facilities.
Planning permission from Mendip District Council is expected imminently for the club to create pitches at the site. Turf will then be brought in and a draining tank installed, with a view to the first-team beginning training there in October.
Vesty's wife and three children are due to arrive from Leicester next week, but until then he is residing on his own at Farleigh House.
The Gothic Revival house looks like a plausible setting for a creepy Edgar Allan Poe tale, and Vesty admits the supernatural sometimes feels pretty close to hand.
“I feel like the master of the estate, but it can be scary in the middle of the night. When the fire alarm went off the other night I genuinely thought there was a ghost!"
Vesty has joined Bath from arch-rivals Leicester Tigers, and while he admits it's been a bit of a wrench leaving his home city, he's rubbing his hands at the prospect of a fresh start in the West Country.
“Bath Rugby’s an amazingly exciting place to be at the moment with the new training facilities and the new players. And the work ethic around the place has been amazing, from the youngest to the oldest," he said.
Among those new players is his old Leicester mucker Lewis Moody, who also made the move from the Midlands to Bath over the summer.
The England skipper is set for his first formal training session with his new club on Monday.
“Lewis brings a certain intensity to training which is good for any team," said Vesty. "It will be good for the team having him around.”
Vesty has revelled in the amount of ball-handling involved in Bath's pre-season training sessions and is relishing Bath's pre-season camp in Provence in the first week of August.
The week will culminate with a match against French second-tier outfit Pays d'Aix RC on August 6.
“It won’t be a holiday - I’ve seen a bit of the schedule!
"It’s exciting because it will be the first time I put a Bath shirt on and a chance to do all the things that we’ve been working hard at."

"Bath will reinvigorate me" - for the full interview with Sam Vesty and his thoughts on where he sees himself playing at Bath, see the July 22 Bath Chronicle

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Raising a glass to the Heineken Cup draw

Bath Rugby have a good chance of being quick out of the blocks when their Heineken Cup campaign kicks off in October.
A home game (even if it is against last year's defeated finalists, Biarritz) followed by an away clash against new Italian side Aironi is a kind enough draw.
They have a good chance of hitting their stride and getting championship points under their belt before facing slippery Ulster - who beat them twice last season - in back-to-back fixtures.
And if Bath's fortunes in Europe do go belly up, supporters always have a trip to the Basque country to look forward to in January, when Biarritz will host them.

Pictured: Luke Watson, one of Bath's few bright sparks in a dark and dismal European campaign last season, takes the fight to Ulster at The Rec

More Heineken Cup news here

Monday, 19 July 2010

Rugby - a game for gentlemen?

Headbutts, stamps, gouges and punches.

With such an unedifying array of thuggery displayed on the pitch from time to time, can it really be maintained – as the old adage has it – that rugby is a game played by gentlemen with oddly-shaped balls?

There was a chorus of unquestionably justified disgust and disquiet following Stade Francais' display of eye-gouging during last season's Heineken Cup match against Ulster.

Now the perpetration of another on-field sin is sullying the game – the headbutt. Actually, that's not quite right. It's the cowardly, sneaky headbutt.

Fans around the world have seen the slow-mo footage of Springbok lock forward Bakkies Botha's butt on the All Blacks' Jimmy Cowan in the opening match of the Tri-Nations.

And you don't need to be a citing commissioner or disciplinary panel judge to grasp that what Botha committed was a Neanderthal act of assault, more in keeping with the law of the jungle than the law of rugby union.

Botha's butt elicited the same reaction in me as an eye-gouge because, like a gouge, it was committed against a defenceless prey.

Cowan was lying on his stomach with his back to Botha when the big South African, pictured, decided to butt him. Well 'ard, Bakkies, well 'ard.

If a Millwall FC fan performed such a sickening act on a rival fan – let alone a player performing it on another player – the howls of derision and outrage would shake the very foundations of Wembley.

But an international lock of the highest order does it and there are still some who shrug their shoulders and say 'forwards will be forwards – it's part of the game'.

Not good enough. Rugby players aren't the sporting equivalent of foreign diplomats, they don't have immunity from prosecution for the 80 minutes a week they spend on a rectangular pitch.

It's time for the authorities to start using a bit more stick and that may require a criminal prosecution for common assault or actual bodily harm in the not too distant future.

A rugby stadium is not the Circus Maximus. We gather to watch episodes of controlled aggression, not displays of last-man-standing brutality that would in the normal course of things secure one a night in the slammer. Our gladiators are athletes, not machines primed for maiming.

Rugby's a fierce contact sport, set apart by its spectacular collisions and the strength of its players. That's why I enjoy it.

But, please, let's cut out the illegal violence.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Pride in the Bath jersey

Sorry about the delay in posting this - family matters have intervened of late. But here's my take on Lions legend Sir Ian McGeechan's arrival at Bath Rugby.
And I expect more canny moves from new Bath owner Bruce Craig in the next few weeks. He's fast assembling an on and off-field set up - both in terms of personnel and facilities - that will be the envy of every club in the land, if not the universe.