Thursday, 29 December 2011

The malaise afflicting Bath Rugby

"Thank goodness Leicester won.”

As utterances go, those four words pass a Bath Rugby supporter’s lips about as often as Halley’s Comet comes into view.

But it’s got to the point where Bath fans – for their own sanity – are having to rely on what other sides are doing. Heaven knows they receive no peace of mind from watching their own team.

Had Worcester Warriors (the team that first revealed the extent of Bath’s travails - remember that wretchedly inglorious November night at Sixways?) beaten Leicster on Tuesday, Bath would have dropped to 11th in the ladder, just eight points above bottom-placed Newcastle.

Perennial optimists will caution against such gloomy glances at the Aviva Premiership table. Maybe everything will come good as core players return. Maybe Newcastle can be relied upon to finish bottom. Maybe the current blunt strategy pursued by Bath will be whittled into a piercing dart...

On the first point, I have little doubt that the likes of Carl Fearns and Lee Mears will bring about an upswing in Bath’s fortunes once they are fit again. But the strength of that upswing will be nigh on negligible if Bath continue to play with the lack of cohesion and lateral direction that they have displayed in the past two months.

Pundits like Dean Ryan can see it and Bath’s own supporters can see it – there is less gel in Bath than there is on Lawrence Dallaglio’s scalp.

And let’s not be foolish enough to make any assumptions about Newcastle. Bath have lost seven of their last eight matches in all competitions, the Falcons three.

That is not quite comparing like with like, as Newcastle have been competing in the Amlin Cup rather than the Heineken, but the Tynesiders have still defeated the likes of Toulon and Gloucester.

With a sharper looking backline than last season, and with key players already being re-signed, only a fool would brand the Falcons as destined for the drop.

Indeed, while Newcastle sign pivotal players, Bath’s contract negotiations seem to have stalled.

Towards the end of November, chief executive Nick Blofeld was confident that a handful of new deals with out-of-contract players would be concluded and announced before Christmas. That hasn’t happened. Either the club wants to see an improvement in personal performance before deals are done or players are having second thoughts.

But once we are into the new year, players will be fair game to other clubs – and then assembling a squad gets a whole lot trickier.

It is now four weeks since club chairman Bruce Craig used a matchday programme to publicly describe his side’s performance against Worcester as “unacceptable”. Since then, Bath have lost four on the spin, conceding 108 points in the process.

The question is, if things were unacceptable to Craig then, what are they now?

Before the start of this season, the chairman declared that Bath wouldn’t be “chucking the ball around in the rain”, as they had done at times under previous head coach Steve Meehan. Instead, a more pragmatic approach would prevail.

I accept that, at times, the club’s heads-up-and-have-a-go strategy under Meehan displayed a bravado verging on the witless but what supporters are being served now appears just as witless and is far less entertaining – the worst of both worlds.

In the season of goodwill, even a hack like me has been surprised – through emails, through social media and through online forums – at the relish with which supporters have been whetting knives.

And I think the clash with London Irish at The Rec on New Year’s Day will go a long way to determining which way the bird gets carved.

Win and there will be a lot of talk about a new year and a new dawn. Lose badly with another under-par performance and the call for change will rise to a clamour.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Sporting expectations - should we demand the spirit of Amundsen rather than Scott?

Some thoughts on the fickle (and sometimes bone-headed) nature of sporting expectation, with apologies to Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen. This is taken from my weekly column in The Bath Chronicle

The sands of expectation are a constantly shifting feature on the sporting landscape. What supporters expect can dramatically erode from one season – or indeed one month – to the next.

There are some constants. For reasons attributable only to collective hysteria, for example, every four years the English public expects to see its national side lift football's World Cup. This is a hopeless, cyclical act of illusion triumphing over reality.

But in most circumstances, where a vestige of brain power remains, supporters (except for the determinedly fanatical) are smart enough to let a side's recent form temper their expectations.

What, then, are we to make of the fact that Bath Rugby's performance against Leinster at The Rec on Saturday has been heralded by many (and I include myself in this) as something of a success, even though it was a loss?

To some supporters, it's a nonsense to view any home loss as anything other than inadequate. We've come to a pretty pass, they say, when a club of Bath's traditions and reputation is satisfied with picking up a losing bonus point at The Rec.

Talk of going down fighting against the champions of Europe is all good and well, they might add, but we want the spirit of Amundsen down here on the banks of the Avon, not Scott.

This viewpoint is understandable and I have some sympathy with it, especially when all the talk from the Bath camp at the start of the season was of turning The Rec into the sporting equivalent of Fort Knox.

But while the home of blue, black and white has proved to be very far from impregnable this season, at the weekend there was a sense of the tussle having been worthy of the shirt.

First-team coach Brad Davis remarked during pre-season that if visiting sides were to leave The Rec with anything during the 2011-12 campaign, then they would leave broken. And there can be no doubt that when Leinster climbed aboard for the flight back over the Irish Sea on Sunday evening, they will have known all about just how physical a game they had been involved in.

There has been a kind of nobility in Bath's refusal to point to their injury list as an excuse in times of recent woe. But casting one's eye over the team sheet on Sunday, the mismatch in squads wrought by Bath's injury crisis was patent.

Leinster may have been without the world-beating Brian O'Driscoll, but their bench still bristled with Irish internationals, while Bath's was heavily populated by academy players.

With that in mind, and with Bath's poor Premiership performances providing the rest of the context, Sunday's match was very far from being just another 'L' in the ledger for Bath.

A natural question following on from this is, what sort of expectations should Bath fans have for Saturday's return match at the Aviva in Dublin? The answer has to be "Higher ones than if you'd asked the same question a week ago".

And that, surely, is a sign that the rot has been stopped and (modest) progress made.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

The rugby video of the year. One man's humiliation and one for the fat boys!

Teeth-grindingly inept... but Bath Rugby take criticism on the chin

Some analysis of Bath Rugby's no-show against Worcester Warriors in the Aviva Premiership, plus a look forward to the showdown with Sale Sharks on Saturday...

If there is to be a soupcon of solace taken from such a teeth-grindingly inept performance, it is that Bath Rugby took the flak squarely on the chin.

A quiet, shell-shocked Sir Ian McGeechan, the club’s director of rugby, admitted his side had “no excuses” after the 16-7 loss. Players muttered darkly of a “bleak” changing room and a sense of “humiliation”.

Clearly, nothing was to be swept under the carpet. And a good job, too.

Play like this in Dublin in two weeks’ time against a Leinster side studded with Ireland internationals and Bath will be destroyed. Twenty points? Thirty points? The margin really does not bear thinking about.

Perversely, good may come from a performance that provoked a curious blend of incredulity, frustration and bile from Bath fans at Sixways, on Twitter and on fans’ forums. This may have been the jolt that Bath needed to rouse them from a state of under-performing mediocrity.

Too often in the past month – against Harlequins, Glasgow and now Worcester – Bath have delivered performances that have lacked cohesion and bite. Friday night’s showing took the biscuit.

It is to Bath’s credit that they did not reach for the excuses digest, even when they had an ample stock to select from. An injury crisis at hooker, coupled with a neck injury to lock Dave Attwood, resulted in them having four props on the field at one point. And while All Black World Cup-winner Stephen Donald had a hugely disappointing game, particularly after his sensational debut a week earlier, any sensible analysis of Friday’s failings needs to consider that he is still new to both Bath and the English game. To expect the back-line to sing in just the fly-half’s second start is a tall order.

Still, Bath’s backs did not just fail to sing, they choked. Other than having a decoy runner who would plod in front of the first receiver, Bath looked bereft of ideas.

Bereft was a word that sprang to mind on the final whistle, too. The look on captain Stuart Hooper’s face said it all. Standing on the touchline with his hands on his hips, a strobe machine would have struggled to make him blink. The lock looked gobsmacked, unable to comprehend the myriad failings he had just witnessed.

In mitigation, Bath’s clash with Worcester took place just five days after a gruelling Heineken Cup scrap with Montpellier. But this was Bath without guile, without flair and without collective purpose.

They could not hold on to the ball in the first half, gave away too many penalties, and the advantage line looked like a distant country.

“We weren’t near the intensity we had the week before and we have to look at that,” said McGeechan. “It’s no good being up one week and down the next. We were pretty average on Friday.

“We’ve no excuses. These things have to be far better than they were and we need to look hard at ourselves.

“Any defeat is disappointing but it’s when we don’t do justice to ourselves that I find it quite hard to accept.”

There were positive contributions amid the dark Midlands night. Academy wing Olly Woodburn continued to show the older hands how it is done, Francois Louw put in the hard yards when he was not scrapping with his backrow adversary Sam Betty, while Charlie Beech was Bath’s stand-out front rower, even when he was pushed back to the second row when Attwood’s suspected neck injury necessitated a drastic shuffling of the pack.

Both sides lacked penetration for most of the first half but it was the intelligent game management of Worcester half backs Shaun Perry and Joe Carlisle that gave the Warriors the edge.

Carlisle kicked the hosts into the lead in the tenth minute. The tone for the evening was set when Donald missed two opportunities in quick succession to level the scores.

With just ten seconds of the half remaining, a neat pop pass by Carlisle released Miles Benjamin who was on the burst. Mark Lilley could not cling on to the winger’s shirt and Benjamin rounded Bath full-back Nick Abendanon with ease to score the converted try that was nothing less than the Warriors deserved.

Bath upped the tempo a touch in the second half and had chances, most notably when Louw burst through midfield, but the final pass was never close to being accurate enough.

Carlisle extended Worcester’s lead midway through the second period with a simple penalty but a shaft of hope for Bath was provided by a well-worked driven maul that culminated in the television match official awarding a try to the hard-grafting Beech. Replacement Olly Barkley struck the conversion beautifully. Suddenly, and almost unaccountably, Bath were within a converted score of poaching the match.

But it was not to be – and such an eventuality would have been unjust on Worcester. The visitors tried to run the ball from deep inside their own 22 and after much huffing and puffing the ploy hideously backfired. A pass by Barkley was intercepted and any hope of Bath heading back south with a losing bonus point was snuffed out when former England fly-half Andy Goode, on as a replacement, slotted a drop goal.

“No one was happy and the players were bitterly disappointed in the changing room afterwards,” said forwards coach Martin Haag after the dust had settled. “Perhaps that disappointment doesn’t show sometimes but I can assure you they were feeling it.”

The task for Haag and the rest of the Bath coaching team is to transmute that disappointment into the sporting gold dust of burning motivation. For that, they need only put the tape of Friday’s no-show on replay.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Sam Vesty voices rugby concussion worry

An alarming brush with concussion has prompted Bath Rugby's Sam Vesty to call for the game's authorities to take action to reduce the number of head injuries.

Vesty, who is Bath's representative on the Rugby Players' Association management board, fears the game could be sitting on a dementia time bomb.

​He has spoken out after being concussed while playing against his former club, Leicester Tigers, at The Rec on October 1.

The 29-year-old suffered worrying symptoms for a fortnight after taking a blow to the head from Boris Stankovich. The prop was cited for the tackle but was not banned.

Following the impact, Vesty was unable to concentrate in training, felt dizzy whenever he exercised and struggled to stay awake during the day.

Vesty says he was in excellent hands with the Bath Rugby medical team but wants to see procedures tightened across the game.

The twice-capped fly half believes dangerous tackles should be more rigorously policed and has suggested that the number of games played per season in England should be reduced to ease the demands on players.

Vesty said of his experience:
"It was worrying. There is a lot of research in America, some of which shows that American footballers are 19 times more likely to get dementia than the ordinary person, and rugby union is not a million miles away from that.
"From a long-term perspective, it's an issue the game needs to look at.

"I don't think there was anything malicious in the blow I received, it was just one of those things you get every now and again in rugby – a head knock.

"You can get over it in a day or it can take a couple of weeks, and I was rubbish for a couple of weeks.

"I felt groggy and was sleeping during the day, which is something I never do. Any time I tried to do any exercise I felt dizzy and I couldn't concentrate on the ball.

"I'd been knocked out before but I'd been fine then, so nothing like this had really happened to me."

The International Rugby Board currently has a policy of 'graduated return to play' following concussion, whereby a player undergoes a steady reintroduction to contact sessions. In the Premiership, players also have to pass a series of cognitive tests before they can return to action.

Vesty, who made his comeback off the bench against Worcester on October 22 and featured in the starting XV that beat London Irish on Saturday, continued: "There is medical protocol in place now but it just needs to be adhered to. They maybe also need to look into how many knocks you get in training and how many games you play a year.

"All these things have an impact on a player but we don't know what the repercussions are. There are some studies coming out that are a little bit worrying.

"It's not just me. A lot of the rugby public are looking into it. It's getting addressed and getting looked at and I think it's very important."

The issue is high up the agenda at Bath, with three players at the club having suffered blows to the head in October. As well as Vesty, Francois Louw and Tom Biggs suffered high challenges that floored them.

Club chief executive Nick Blofeld said: "We have had three incidents recently and are very conscious of this issue. Our medical staff are very hot on it.

"Our concern with Francois Louw is that it looked a nasty challenge and the player wasn't cited."

Vesty's position on the RPA's board gives his views weight and after the Chronicle raised his concerns with Premiership Rugby, the organisation offered to hold further talks with players.

A Premiership Rugby Ltd spokeswoman said: "Phil Winstanley (PRL rugby director) will be discussing with the Rugby Players' Association whether there's anything more that we should be doing."

An IRB spokesman said he was pleased a player of Vesty's prominence was bringing attention to the issue: “Education is key and it is great to see the RPA taking a leading role in educating its membership on the implications of concussion.”

The RFU said a regime of cognitive tests following concussion meant players’ safety was protected.

“Every elite player over the age of 18 undergoes a baseline CogSport test annually and can only return to play if they pass the test,” said a spokesman. “‘Rushing’ a player back to player is against regulation."

Friday, 21 October 2011

Guy Mercer: Bath Rugby's general-in-waiting

With a back row that boasts the likes of England skipper Lewis Moody, Springbok Francois Louw, British Lion Simon Taylor and England Saxon Carl Fearns, young flanker Guy Mercer could be forgiven if he showed a hint of frustration at Bath Rugby. But the local lad who has risen through the ranks at the club is far from down-hearted. In fact, he oozes an impressive blend of maturity and good sense. After interviewing him this week, I have a prediction: Mercer will skipper Bath within five years.

Go on, be a good sport...

There are debates about injustice, and there are debates about injustice in sport.

While few would question that legal debates in the Supreme Court are of greater significance to the lot of mankind than the rulings of the IRB or any other sporting body, which ones tend to linger longer in the collective psyche?

It is a peculiar fact that sporting controversy often outlives political and social controversy. That is testament to the way in which sport can seize – some might say possess – the mind.

The question of whether Sam Warburton should have been red-carded and banned for his tackle on Vincent Clerc might not be of greater legal significance than whether travellers should be Taser-ed while being evicted from a farm, but I know which one I'll recall with greater vivacity in a decade or two's time.

Similarly, there were all manner of civil rights issues being thrashed out in the mid-1960s. But when I say 'England, 1966' to you, what do you think? Moreover, ask a German about whether the ball crossed the English line after hitting the crossbar and you will receive chapter and verse. And then some.

It is a truism that sporting events can escalate into diplomatic incidents. The other side of the coin is that sporting events can sometimes defuse political problems. What, after all, is the Olympics if not a quasi-utopian portrayal of a world at peace with itself, however fleetingly?

The power of sport is that we can rehearse to ourselves all sorts of emotions and virtues. Phrases like "Gascoigne redeemed himself..." or "Pietersen atoned for his dropped catch..." or "England fans forgave Robson..." come all too easy to the fan and the journalist, because in the safe world of bat and ball we can experience mock-dramas that prepare us for the proper emotional demands of real life.

The danger of sport is that it can also poison the well of emotional response. It's now a commonplace to hear of parents behaving like apes on the touchlines of under-10 football matches, baying at the ref in a way that should land them before the Bench. That's because they take their lead from peevish footballers and managers whose stock response is rage.

All notion of stoicism, deference and emotional restraint is long dead in football. Lest I be accused of being anti- football, it came close to dying on the golf course too when the American Ryder Cup team trampled over Jose Maria Olazabal's line in 1999.

And that, tortuously, brings me back to captain Warburton. Although obviously devastated at the sending off that cost his country a place in a World Cup final, there were no tantrums or histrionics for the cameras. And didn't you find that just a little reassuring?

Friday, 7 October 2011

World in Union? Don't be such a Twit

Reprimands from a team manager to players are about as welcome for a squad as Eliota Fuimaono Sapolu at an IRB tea party

Forget World in Union. Boorish antics and intemperate language from players, as well as petty mean-spiritedness from certain quarters of the media, have made this Rugby World Cup look like a comedy of human folly as much as a festival of sport.

The melody for the Rugby World Cup anthem is based on a section of Holst's The Planets but at times this competition has seemed like two planets colliding.

On the field, the division between so-called Tier 1 and Tier 2 teams has been made to look spurious – witness Tonga beating France and Samoa running both Wales and South Africa close, despite the South Sea Islanders' less charitable scheduling.

That scheduling – which involves Tier 2 sides having a shorter turnaround between matches, a state of affairs driven largely by Tier 1 sides being given weekend television slots – has come in for vociferous criticism.

Georgia have grumbled and United States captain Todd Clever has voiced his dissatisfaction but every cause needs a charismatic, articulate leader – and spearheading the criticism has been smartphone warrior and Samoa centre Eliota Fuimaono Sapolu.

Armed with his mobile and Twitter account, the former Bath Rugby player has been waging a vitriolic online campaign against the International Rugby Board's scheduling.

Sapolu, a trained lawyer, is unquestionably a bright man but, after reading some of his tweets, the question that arises is this – what's bigger, his learning or his ego's desire to usurp this World Cup for itself?

The Samoan makes cogent points about how his team and other Tier 2 sides are condemned to perform on an uneven playing field.

But to make analogies with the Holocaust, apartheid and slavery, as he has done, are extreme, disingenuous and unsavoury, no matter how much subtle reasoning he has subsequently deployed to try and explain himself.

To then call a referee biased and racist put him beyond the pale. At best it was a particularly acidic case of sour grapes, at worst it was an arrogant and libellous attack which reinforced the notion that Sapolu at times thinks he is above civil law, despite his frequent protestations that it is he who is fighting for justice.

Elsewhere at this World Cup, England have at times seemingly gone out of their way to make things as hard as possible for themselves.

Certainly, reprimands from the team manager to players are about as welcome for the England squad as Eliota Fuimaono Sapolu at an IRB tea party.

Some media portrayed Shontayne Hape as having 'broken ranks' on Monday for having the audacity to say that 'a couple of the guys have let the squad down', when really what the centre was making was a statement of the bleedin' obvious.

Fanning the flames further, The New Zealand Herald carried a picture on its front page yesterday of a surly-looking Mike Tindall alongside the headline: "An Englishman Repents: The Most Horrible Team".

That headline may well be a non sequitur but it still managed to convey an ugliness and thinly disguised malice that has characterised much of the news media's coverage.

To both the outsider with little acquaintance of rugby and to those who love the game, RWC 2011 has been a depressing spectacle at times.

Somebody ought to give Dame Kiri Te Kanawa a bell and get her to belt out World in Union again. It would be music to supporters' ears for the game to rediscover the harmonising power of rugby.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Competition: Win official Rugby World Cup 2011 game

I have one copy of the PlayStation 3 version of the official Rugby World Cup 2011 game up for grabs, as well as a copy of the Xbox 360 version.
I gave my thoughts on the game in an earlier posting.
To be in with a chance of winning, answer the following question: What was the score in the Rugby World Cup final in 2007?
Email the answer to me at by the end of Wednesday, September 28. Please state which version you would like.
I'll let the winners know by the end of Friday, September 30. The editor's decision (i.e mine) will be final and I won't enter into any correspondence with entrants, unless of course it's amusing or entertaining.
I'm running the competition courtesy of 505 Games, HB Studios and Things With Wings. More information about the game is available from the official game site and its Facebook page. You can also find out more about the game on Twitter

Friday, 9 September 2011

One for the coffee table

When it comes to watching the Rugby World Cup on the box, it normally boils down to piling down the pub or putting your feet up in the living room.
If it's the latter option you prefer, then you'll be needing some appropriate coffee table reading matter. And Union - The Heart of Rugby is just the ticket.
Packed with iconic images capturing key moments in the history of the game, it had even my wife - not normally the greatest of rugby aficionados - thumbing through (although that may have had something to do with the physiques on show).
Union contains the thoughts of Martin Johnson, John Kirwan, Joel Stransky, Nick Farr-Jones and Philippe Sella, but it is the photography that steals the show.
Well timed for the Rugby World Cup, Union would also be worthy of consideration as a Christmas present for that rugby-loving relative.

Union - The Heart of Rugby is published by VSP.

A few musings...

League predictions, home victories and silencing Austin Healey. Read my column in this week's Bath Chronicle.

Monday, 5 September 2011

The Rugby World Cup - at your fingertips

Raised on a diet of Tetris and Super Mario Bros, there has since been something of a hiatus in my gaming career.
But the release of Rugby World Cup 2011, coupled with a neighbour's penchant for his PlayStation3, got me flexing my thumbs again.
Unlike football (of the association variety), tranferring rugby to the games console is no easy task. With football, you need to kick, tackle and head. With rugby, you need to pass, ruck, maul, scrummage, punt, chip, nudge a grubber, take a lineout... The task for programmers is not easy.
Getting your head around the controls of Rugby World Cup 2011 takes a game or two - particularly for the modern gaming novice like me - but before too long you get the knack, and the result is a heap of fun.
With 20 teams to choose from, you can take charge of everyone from the All Blacks to Namibia. My recommendation is to avoid selecting France - I had three hot-headed players sin-binned in one half for dangerous tackles. No stereotyping from the programmers, then!
Rather like the Wrigleys chewing gum I used to munch on while playing Tetris all those years ago, Rugby World Cup 2011 is better when you share it with some one. This game comes into its own when you go head-to-head - and with a couple of beers on ice, it's a belting way to continue the World Cup atmosphere when there's no game on the box.
In an effort to recreate the vibe of a live televised match, there is even commentary from Stuart Barnes, Miles Harrison et al. Their repertoire of remarks seemed a little repetitive during my first stab at the game, but that probably reflected my narrow abilities rather than limited programming.
An ideal sideorder to the Rugby World Cup itself, this game is a tasty accompaniment to the real-life action in New Zealand. I'm glad I came out of gaming retirement for this one.
Enjoy a taste of the game here.

Rugby World Cup 2011, by 505 Games and HB Studios, is available for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation3 2011. For more information, visit and\rwc2011game

First commentary on BBC

Thanks for the tweets, texts and emails following my first foray into live radio commentary. I loved covering Newcastle Falcons V Bath Rugby at Kingston Park on Saturday, and fingers crossed BBC Bristol will have me back soon!

Friday, 2 September 2011

Dave Attwood: "I'm not going to try and be the next Danny Grewcock"

Dave Attwood’s dog – recently back from an emergency dash to the vet – is giving him the runaround. “I’m sorry, I’ll have to call you back in ten minutes,” he apologises, an ever-so-slight hint of alarm in his West Country brogue.

Being given the runaround is not an experience to which the hulking 18st England lock is accustomed. Nor is the emotion of alarm one that you would readily associate with the man; it’s he who does the alarming.

But Attwood, who is starting out on a two-year deal at Bath, is more than a rugby tough nut. Beneath his massive frame is a thoughtful mind – and he has plenty to say.

Not that that should come as a surprise. As well as international honours, Attwood has an honours degree in philosophy and physics. And while we don’t have time to talk Descartes or Schrodinger’s Cat (although I suspect he’d take a question about either in his stride), Attwood covers plenty of ground – including his pubic area.

Firstly, I want to know whether he’s fit.

“The knee’s in good shape,” he says, referring to the problem that ended his hopes of a World Cup berth.

“But I’ve had something called osteitis pubis – an inflammation of the joint at the front of the pelvis – and that’s been the main issue.”

While this sounds like the sort of malady guaranteed to get schoolboys giggling in a lower-fifth biology class, it’s been far from a laughing matter for the second row.

Attwood picked up the condition while training with England during the Six Nations in February. It refused to go away and the problem came to a head in June.

“When England had my knee scanned they had a look at the pelvis as well and there was more of an issue there then initially thought,” he explains.

“The only solution is rest, and I’ve been limited in what I’ve been able to do.”

The condition has forced Attwood to train in fits and starts, with the inflammation flaring up whenever he overdoes things. But he remains cautiously optimistic of being fit enough to make his competitive debut for Bath in the season’s curtain-raiser at Newcastle on Saturday.

The 24-year-old moved to Bath in May following spells at West Country rivals Bristol and Gloucester. And with Bath stalwart Danny Grewcock having hung up his boots at the end of last season, much has been made of Attwood being the club’s next ‘enforcer’ – although he insists he will be his own man at The Rec.

“I’m a bit of a lump and I like to throw myself around a bit and people draw parallels,” he says. “The same sort of thing happened when I was called up to the England squad, with people comparing me to Martin Johnson. There is a character like that in most teams.

“But we’ve a new group of players at Bath and a slightly different game plan. There is a new way of thinking.

“I’m very much here to be Dave Attwood and the people running the club feel Dave Attwood will be someone who can help get the club going in the right direction.

“I don’t see it as me being the person who Danny was, because we are not the same player. It’s dangerous to start trying to live up to people’s expectations. I’m going to be who I am.”

There is a blend of defiance and clear-thinking in what Attwood says. There is an undertow of authority too – and he is frank that he has moved to Bath with the intention of establishing himself as one of the club’s leaders.

“As a reasonably young player just coming into the meat of his career, I want to feel like I am able to take the reins a bit,” he says. “I want to be somebody who other people in the squad look to.”

Away from the field, Attwood and his partner are setting about renovating a house on the west side of the city. The place, he admits, is currently a mess of knocked-through walls, but he has big plans. And while he is passionate about transforming his newly acquired bricks and mortar into something special, so too does he see the scope for a title-winning transformation at his new team.

“It’s an opportunity to make something happen,” he said.

“With Bath, there is something of the unknown and there is certainly a great expectancy about what this club can achieve. That’s very exciting for a young player.”

And then he’s off again, this time to a meeting at the club’s headquarters. Maybe, if his dog behaves, I’ll get on to Descartes the next time I speak to this renaissance man of English rugby.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Danny Cipriani - A Rebel who's found his cause?

Danny Cipriani tells me why he believes English players should be encouraged to play in the southern hemipshere if they have international ambitions, not prohibited from doing so

Danny Cipriani won't be leaving the Melbourne Rebels anytime soon – and hopes to extend his stay in the southern hemisphere until at least 2013.

The gifted fly-half was linked to a possible move to Bath Rugby in May, when the English club's management revealed they had received an approach from Cipriani's representatives about a return to England.

But Cipriani, who had a chequered debut season with the Rebels, insists it was always his plan to remain in Australia.

The 23-year-old will run out at The Rec tomorrow night when the Super 15 side take on Bath in what will be the first of three pre-season friendlies for the English side.

And Cipriani, who has seven international caps to his name, says he isn't heaping pressure on himself as he prepares to play in front of an English crowd for the first time in a year-and-a-half.

"I can't live my life always feeling that I've got a point to prove," he told the Chronicle.

"At the minute, I'm very secure and happy in the place where I am.

"I've got some good memories of playing games in Bath. The Rec used to be quite a good stomping ground for Wasps when I was with them.

"But this is a new chapter of my life now and I'm thoroughly enjoying being with the Melbourne Rebels."

Cipriani dismissed out of hand the speculation that he had been interested in a move to Bath.

"It was always my intention to do my second year in Melbourne and there was never any doubt," he explained.

"That was just a media spin you guys like to put on things. The second year was always going to be the situation."

The mercurial outside half went further, indicating that he could well seek a third season in Australia.

"Next year, if the Rebels don't want to kick me out, then hopefully I'll stay for another year. We'll see what happens," said Cipriani.

"I'll take each moment as it comes and move forward. At the moment I'm enjoying Super 15 and loving the league."

Following next month's World Cup, England head coach Martin Johnson has said he will only select overseas- based players in "exceptional circumstances".

But Cipriani, who admits to already having one eye on the 2015 World Cup, believes he could yet force his way into England contention while playing in Australia.

Moreover, he reckons that playing against the Super 15s superstars every week is an ideal preparation for international rugby.

"England's selection rules may change," he said. "I may be able to stay out there and get the opportunity to play for England.

"I was speaking to the England management earlier in the season, and for me the Super 15 is the best league in the world.

"Before, when I used to play the All Blacks, South Africa and Australia, because you don't play against them week in week out, it was like 'Jeez, it's Schalk Burger, Dan Carter, Matt Giteau'.

"But if you are in the Super 15 and you're playing against them every week, some of them become friends and it becomes a regular thing.

"There isn't the same [daunting] effect when you play them, so I think it's been a good experience."

Cipriani had a rocky ride during his first year in Australia, with off-field disciplinary issues prompting the Rebels management to leave him behind during the South Africa leg of the competition.

But he believes he has learnt his lesson and emerged a maturer individual.

"I had a few mishaps early on," he admitted. "But for me, last year was a big turnaround.

"For the last part of the season I had to change a few things and focus, and I've done that, so hopefully I will reap the benefits next season."

Monday, 25 July 2011

Take part in the Rugby World Cup

For any gamers out there, here's a sneak preview of the official game for the Rugby World Cup. Doesn't look bad, does it? I might have to boot up my games console for the first time since Sonic the Hedgehog.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

RFU set Bath Rugby deadline for Stephen Donald appeal

Bath Rugby have until August 12 to appeal against the RFU's decision to deny All Black Stephen Donald, pictured, the right to play in England.

Reports over the past week have suggested that it was the Home Office's UK Border Agency which turned down Bath's bid to bring the New Zealand star to The Rec next season.

But I have received confirmation that it was the RFU that made the decision on Friday.

It has also emerged that the rules that led to the RFU verdict were only implemented after Bath had begun discussions with Donald, who has 21 caps for his country.

The regulations came into effect on May 16 when they were signed off by the UKBA. They had been drafted by the RFU Governance Standing Committee, which has representatives from Premiership clubs.

An RFU spokesperson said today: "Stephen Donald failed to meet the RFU Governing Body Endorsement criteria to play rugby in England, in accordance with UKBA requirements, because he has not started a game for New Zealand within the past 15 months.

"Bath Rugby are entitled to appeal."

I understands that Donald is still keen on a move to the West Country, despite reports linking him to the Auckland Blues, and that Bath will appeal.

Any appeal is likely to focus on Donald's injury record, as well as his high profile.

The outside half required chest surgery in June 2010. If Bath can persuade the independent appeal panel that such an injury prevented him from playing his way into contention for a starting berth for the All Blacks, then the appeal – according to RFU regulations – would succeed. Donald also suffered broken vertebrae in March this year.

An appeal panel would also need to consider "whether the player is able to contribute significantly to the development of the game at the top level in England".

Given that Donald has been understudy to the best fly-half in the world, Dan Carter, for the past few years, Bath could well argue that he is of sufficient quality to "contribute significantly" to the profile and spectacle of the English game.

The Home Office suggested to me this week that the RFU decision had been made to protect the UK labour market.

A UK Border Agency spokesman said: "The responsibility rests with sports governing bodies such as the Rugby Football Union to endorse sponsorship applications from clubs and the application of each sportsperson wishing to enter the UK.

"This is because they are best placed to determine the skill level of a migrant and whether there will be an adverse impact on the resident labour market of their sport."

I understand that Donald had agreed terms and signed a contract with Bath following the expiration of his deal with Hamilton-based Super 15 side the Chiefs. He has been lined up as a replacement for Springbok Butch James.

It is also understood that the senior management at Bath, who have not commented on any reports linking Donald to the club, had been aware that he needed both RFU endorsement and then migration clearance from the UKBA. The RFU endorsement rules require foreign players to be recent, full internationals.

Donald has made three appearances for the All Blacks in the past 15 months, but all from off the bench. Last month - after he had been linked to Bath - he was dropped from the New Zealand squad ahead of the World Cup

Sophie Barrett-Brown, a leading immigration expert with international sports law specialists Laura Devine, said Bath had no option but to request an appeal if the club wanted to persist in its bid for Donald.

If the appeal fails, then it could demand a judicial review but that could have huge financial ramifications.

"There has to be the governing body's endorsement, there is no way around that," said Barrett-Brown.

"Judicial review is the only potential way around it but that is costly and risky. If you are unsuccessful the costs of the other party can be awarded against you."

Should Bath call for a review, then the panel would comprise an independent chairman, an RFU representative and a Premiership Rugby representative.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The Southern Hemisphere loose forwards with their eyes on Bath

Bath Rugby saw off a bid from arch rivals Leicester Tigers to secure the services of Springbok flanker Francois Louw, I can reveal.

But the South African flanker, pictured, says a "captivating" visit to Bath early this year made the choice between The Rec and Welford Road a straightforward one.

I exclusively revealed in January that Bath were interested in seven-cap Louw and we reported in April that a deal had been signed.

This week, following the conclusion of the Super 15 competition in the southern hemisphere, both Bath and Louw's hometown side, Cape Town-based Stormers/Western Province, confirmed the 6ft 4in blindside specialist would be moving to The Rec.

I can also reveal that another southern hemisphere loose forward, Julian Salvi, approached Bath with a view to returning to the West Country next season.

Brumbies openside Salvi enjoyed a spectacularly successful year at Bath in 2009-10 when he was named the club's best forward, and recently asked his agent to contact the Bath management to discuss the possibility of another spell at The Rec.

However, Bath's loose forward division was already full to capacity, with Louw and young openside Carl Fearns the new additions to a back row that already boasts Lewis Moody, Simon Taylor, Ben Skirving, Andy Beattie and exciting prospect Guy Mercer.

"Julian instructed me to get in touch with Bath first but unfortunately Bath were full," said Salvi's agent.

This week, it was announced Salvi would instead join Leicester on a two-year deal.

One man who is delighted to be heading to The Rec rather than Welford Road, however, is Louw.

"Playing overseas is always something I've wanted to do and Bath were the first club to approach me," he explained.

"When Bath flew me over for a visit, I was blown away by the ethos among the team and the whole set-up. It was all first class. And it was all in such a beautiful city. I was instantly captivated. What's not to like?

"It was a tough decision to leave Western Province, but easy in the sense that Bath had created such a great impression.

"There were a couple of other interested clubs. Leicester were top of the Premiership and that created a pull, but Bath was always the club for me.

"It's important to be at a club that's going forward, and I could see that was the case at Bath straight away."

The 26-year-old, who has penned a three-year deal with the club, says he is in for the long haul.

"When I sat down with Bath, I explained that I was fully committed and not just doing a little stint overseas," he said.

"I want to shape myself into a team and be part of a growing team going forward."

Louw, however, won't give up on his international ambitions while at Bath. He has been named in South Africa's provisional World Cup squad and is likely to join the club following the conclusion of the competition.

"If the opportunity comes up to play for my country [while I am at Bath] then I would play in a heartbeat," he said.

"Bath know about my commitment to South Africa and my willingness to represent them."

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Blood, sweat and beers - and yoga

Yoga in the grounds of an immaculately maintained 120-acre estate. Welcome to pre-season training, Bath Rugby style.

The bulk of the Bath squad are now nearing the end of their second week of summer training – and there are still nine weeks to go before the first game of the campaign.

With such a long pre-season stretching ahead of them, the key for the strength and conditioning experts who lead such training is to ensure that a sense of tedium doesn’t creep in.

Flipping tyres, pushing sledges and hitting scrum machines are necessary elements in any pre-season programme – there’s no escaping the hard graft – but they cannot be the only ingredients.

To avert a sense of groundhog day, a few novelties have to be thrown in. On Tuesday afternoon, it was yoga time for some of the squad. Lycra, I believe, was optional.

Not that it’s all been about adopting the lotus and the downward-facing dog at Farleigh House.

Lock Stuart Hooper admitted the squad was, at times, being subjected to a whip- cracking regime of blood, sweat and tears.

“There hasn’t been much blood so far, there’s been a fair amount of sweat and no doubt there’s been a few tears in the evening when people have got home!” he said.

“It’s been hard but then it wouldn’t be a good pre-season if it wasn’t hard.”

The art of combining the nitty gritty with the refreshingly unusual is something Premiership champions Saracens have excelled at of late.

Whether it’s trips to German beer festivals or a couple of days with the Miami Dolphins, the management at Sarries know that a few non-traditional stimuli are needed to keep a squad on its toes, cohesive and hungry.

Bath appreciate this, too. Last season, there were sessions with firefighters at Bristol Airport, pictured, and an afternoon of swinging from trees.

More of this may prove a wise investment. As Sarries have shown, blood, sweat and beers really can work.

Friday, 17 June 2011

The Socialist Republic of the Premiership

My musings on Gloucester shareholder Tom Walkinshaw's declaration that Premiership Rugby has its roots "somewhere in socialism"

Those volatile elements, sport and politics, need to be handled carefully whenever there's the slightest whiff that they might be about to combine. Otherwise there can be an unholy combustion.

Inevitably, the debate over the impending increase of the Premiership salary cap has generated a political debate with a small 'p'. Some clubs want it, others aren't so keen. One club has x agenda, another has y agenda.

Such internal politics are bound to occur within Premiership Rugby, the organisation which comprises the top dozen English sides.

What isn't inevitable is the manner in which certain clubs chose to publicly vent their views on the matter.

Ryan Walkinshaw, a major shareholder at Gloucester and the son of former owner Tom, this week gave a revealing interview which was as frank as it was engaging.

Walkinshaw clearly has a passion for the game that rivals his father's and the 23-year-old's views on its future are both well articulated and, in many cases, plausible.

But one of his remarks will no doubt prompt a few raised eyebrows.

"The whole idea of Premiership Rugby as a body has a base somewhere in socialism, in that we are all in it together, for the good of the sport."

During my time as an amateur player, and during my time as a rugby writer, I have to say I haven't had that many discussions about socialism. So it was intriguing to discover that one of the biggest players in the domestic game believes aspects of English professional rugby have their roots in Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto.

I can understand Walkinshaw's sentiments – English clubs do, to a degree, need to co-operate for the good of the game – but the problem is that the game is not played in an English bubble. There is Europe to worry about, too.

Holding back other English clubs because you don't have the money that they have (as Gloucester seem to want to do) might serve your self-interest but it will have the wider effect of harming English clubs' prospects on the European stage.

In that regard, Walkinshaw's proposals are inward-looking and redolent of a 'closed shop' mentality. That attitude won't help an English club lift the Heineken Cup. And would that be "for the good of the sport"?

Thursday, 9 June 2011

All Black Donald fits the bill for Bath Rugby chairman Craig

Bath Rugby have the signature of their new fly half and sources suggest it's All Black Stephen Donald, although there is no confirmation from the club. This column, taken from today's Bath Chronicle, explains why Donald and not Danny Cipriani fits chairman Bruce Craig's vision for the club.

A lot was made of what a physically intimidating specimen Butch James was when he played in the Premiership.

But it seems that the man who is poised to replace the sturdy South African in the number ten shirt at The Rec could be even more, well, butch.

While there is no official word from Bath Rugby, it seems that All Black Stephen Donald, pictured, is likely to be the man who, barring any last-minute hitches, will be pulling the strings at fly-half next season.

As mentioned in last week’s Chronicle, sources indicate that Donald is the man likely to become Bath’s stand-off for the 2011-12 campaign and beyond.

Donald would be a good fit at Bath, not only because of his 6ft 3in frame but because of his reputation as a selfless, hard-working team player.

In an interview with the Chronicle in April, Bath chairman Bruce Craig articulated a vision for the sort of culture he wanted to foster.

In it, he emphasised how important he regarded the chemistry that pervaded a rugby club.

“If you look at the likes of Toulouse, Munster, Leinster and Perpignan, there is a passion, fervour and a willingness on the pitch to almost die for the shirt,” he said.

“You can’t bring in journeymen to do that. That’s one of the things we’re working on. The chemistry is very important.”

Across the Super 15 and in the All Blacks camp, Donald commands respect as a committed, grafting figure – an axis around which the rest of a side can revolve.

He may not bring the heart-in-mouth antics of a Quade Cooper and may have been forced to play understudy to Dan Carter for the All Blacks.

However, as a wise distributor and a reliable place-kicker he would be a wise investment, particularly if he arrives at Bath on a long-term contract.

Sources suggest that Donald would remain at The Rec on a deal until 2014. That would certainly remove him from the ‘journeyman’ category and, at 27 years of age, Bath could quite reasonably expect to get some of the best years of his career out of him.

A fortnight ago, I revealed Danny Cipriani’s representatives had approached Bath.

But under Craig’s vision, Donald is a far better fit.

Photo by Steve Haag/Back Page Sport

Friday, 3 June 2011

Excuse me while I get my trumpet out for a second

Yesterday, I was chuffed to be named Sports Journalist of the Year at the EDF Energy South West Media Awards for the second year on the spin. I'm still chuffed today, actually, although my parade was marginally rained on when my four-year-old told me at bed time last night that she "didn't want to be a journalist" when she grew up and that she "wasn't proud" of daddy. In such circumstances, you'll hopefully forgive me the vainglory of posting a link about my modest triumph...
Self-congratulatory link one and self-congratulatory link two

Changes to the Premiership salary cap could create a two-tier league - but change was the only option

Have the turkeys voted for Christmas? The unanimous support for the changes to the Premiership's salary cap took me by surprise, as I can only see the league's less wealthy clubs suffering as a result. But perhaps they have been motivated by a commendable spirit of altruism... Here's my weekly column for The Bath Chronicle on the issue

There is now no question that Bath Rugby have become a major force when it comes to running the domestic game.

The announcement by Premiership Rugby last week that the salary cap is to be modified is a victory for the club's negotiating powers behind the scenes.

Less than a year ago, Bath chief executive Nick Blofeld and others began the task of reviewing the cap as part of a Premiership Rugby initiative.

Now, following the unanimous support for the review's findings, Bath have got pretty much what they want – albeit the changes will not take full effect until the 2012-13 season.

In essence, the cap will be lifted to £4.5 million, with clubs also free to pay whatever they want for one player whose wages will fall outside the cap.

As events in Zurich have shown in recent days, the internal politics of sporting organisations can be unsavoury, bitchy and shady.

But Premiership Rugby's negotiations over the cap changes appear to have been a polite Georgian tea party compared with FIFA's bun fight.

Ever since chairman Bruce Craig bought the club last April, Bath have made cogent arguments about why the English club game would suffer in Europe unless the cap was raised or modified.

It is a sign of Bath's clout and astuteness that they have negotiated their way to a settlement which gives them the power to deepen their squad with top drawer stars. That will apply to other clubs with deep pockets too, though, such as Northampton.

But will the changes herald the beginning of a two-tier Premiership, with the wealthy clubs leaving their poorer cousins behind?

As a number of Bath supporters have said to me, the likes of Newcastle and Sale voting for the cap changes is akin to turkeys voting for Christmas.

It is inconceivable that they will be able to afford the cap-exempt players which Bath, Saracens et al are likely to fly in.

But the English Premiership does not operate in a vacuum, and it would seem that the less wealthy clubs have recognised that. If the English game is to maintain its profile, its reputation and its ability to compete in Europe, then these changes are necessary, even if there is the danger of a financial elite emerging.

Read my interview with Bath CEO Nick Blofeld on the impact of the changes to the cap.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Cipriani seeks return to Premiership rugby

It's looked likely for some time, and today it looks close to a dead cert: Danny Cipriani will be leaving the Melbourne Rebels soon.
A story I have broken today reveals that representatives of the unpredictable fly-half have contacted Bath Rugby with a view to returning to the English Premiership. Bath aren't particularly interested, stressing that Cipriani "is not top of their list", but it's clear that the gifted but troubled stand-off is looking for an exit from Australia, less than halfway through his two-year deal.
The thing is, with all his off-field shenanigans, who will touch him? Wasps director Lawrence Dallaglio has hinted that the London side would consider taking him back, but it would be a gamble. As Cipriani has proved in Melbourne, he can rub team-mates up the wrong way, and Wasps - who are in as fragile a state as they have ever been in the professional era - can't afford any more boat-rocking.
So, who is top of the list at Bath? Dan Carter was clearly the ultimate target, as the All Black admitted today. And with Morne Steyn ruling himself out, and with Berrick Barnes and Quade Cooper signing extended deals with the Australian Rugby Union, many of the prize inside backs of the modern game are now unavailable. But Carter's cover in the Kiwi squad, Stephen Donald, still appears to be undecided about his post-World Cup future. And given that all the signals are that Bath are after a player who will be involved in the RWC, Donald would appear to be very much in the mix.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Francois Louw exclusive - another Springbok on his way to the West Country

My ventures into the blogosphere have been curtailed of late due to a book deadline and an outbreak of technical incompetence. But in case you missed it, I had an exclusive on Springbok Francois Louw moving to Bath Rugby from Super 15 high-fliers the Stormers, see
The Bath Chronicle and
This has been in the offing for some time too, see my earlier postings
Picture: Steve Haag, Backpage Sport

Steve Meehan's exit - was it inevitable once McGeechan arrived?

It may not have been a collision course but it was always going to be a path fraught with obstacles.

When Bath brought in Sir Ian McGeechan over the summer, the issue of how the coaching legend would work alongside Steve Meehan was on every supporter's lips. Would it be a dream team, or would it be a recipe for friction?

As it happens, the two have muddled through, just as Bath have muddled through so far this season.

But muddling through and rubbing along just aren't good enough for a team with such high ambition.

Head coach Meehan ruled the roost at Bath for four seasons before McGeechan arrived. Taking more of a back seat – or at least losing the right to have the final say – was never going to be easy to stomach and a man of McGeechan's experience and pedigree was only ever going to want to call the shots.

Ever since then – slowly but surely – McGeechan has assumed an increasingly tight grip on playing matters at the club.

Less than ten weeks into the season, McGeechan's title was changed from performance director to director of rugby and, for the first time, chief executive Nick Blofeld spelt out the chain of command – Meehan reported to McGeechan.

That clarification was needed because players, including skipper Luke Watson, had alluded to an underlying uncertainty over exactly what McGeechan's role was and how it fitted alongside Meehan's.

Unfortunately, that change of title did not end the uncertainty.

Privately, the odd player has admitted that there have been too many voices at training. One coach in one ear, another coach in the other.

By the turn of the year, McGeechan was taking a lead in many training sessions, cultivating a greater emphasis on forward-based play.

The game was up a week last Monday when Meehan did not attend a training session. Instead, he was in the meeting with Blofeld that would result in their decision to go their separate ways.

The head coach has been gradually eclipsed by McGeechan as the season has worn on. That is a rather sad way for the Australian's fifth year at the club to peter out – but what an eventful previous four years he had at Bath.

Meehan assumed the hot seat when the club was in a state of flux. The 'ten-man rugby' of the John Connolly era had left Bath a tedious spectacle and Brian Ashton was poached by England before he had time to get his feet under the table.

As a relative unknown, Meehan arrived at The Rec fresh from a successful spell at Stade Francais, where he had worked as assistant coach to first Nick Mallett and then Fabien Galthie.

And he sought to inject a spot of Gallic flair into Bath's plodding play. Under his tutelage, two of the club's – and the Premiership's – most devastating young ball-carriers, Matt Banahan and Nick Abendanon, quickly came to the fore.

Meehan put his side on an upward curve, taking them to the final of the European Challenge Cup in his first season and winning it the next.

Guided by World Cup-winning Springbok fly-half Butch James – the club's biggest signing for years – Meehan developed an expansive, enthralling "high risk, high reward" style of play.

Meehan's side went close to pulling off a major Heineken Cup upset in 2009 when they came within a whisker of beating Leicester in an away quarter-final. Three successive league play-off spots in 2008, 2009 and 2010 also cemented Bath's reputation as consistent title contenders – but they never quite managed to make the next step from contenders to finalists.

After Blofeld was appointed as Bath's new CEO two years ago, he was quick to praise Meehan's attacking guile.

"The biggest compliment I can pay Steve is to express my admiration at Bath's ability to unlock defences," Blofeld told me.

"It's incomparable – and that's the most important part of rugby."

But for all the importance of slicing defences open, there remained a lingering sense that Bath lacked the winner's mentality of a Leicester. They were the Premiership's pretty boys but needed to know when to play ugly.

To his credit, Meehan solidered on through some very dark days indeed, operating under high levels of stress. The opening months of last season must have left him pining for his native Gold Coast.

In the aftermath of a season that saw Bath lose five senior players to drug allegations, the squad was riven by discord. Bath struggled to find their feet but, when they finally did, they set off at 100mph.

There may have been a few whispers about Meehan's man-management techniques but the way the 2009-10 season was transformed was a remarkable and defining moment of his tenure.

Smart and wry, Meehan is the longest-serving head coach in the Premiership and with five years at the helm (or four, if you exclude this one) he's arguably had a fair crack of the whip.

But it has not been a happy finale for Meehan, who has seen his power at the club gradually ebb away over the season.

Even so, the club is doing the right and proper thing in keeping him on until the end of the season. Such a servant deserves the dignity of an orderly departure.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Olly's wry wit is perfect tonic after double leg break

Its nickname may be Castle Grim but the atmosphere at Kingsholm on Saturday was anything but.

You have to hand it to the Gloucester fans – they certainly know how to create a buzz fit for a derby.

Whether you're a home fan, a visiting supporter or a neutral, you know that five minutes before kick-off – with The Shed warming to its task – you'll be getting a fizz of expectation surging through your central nervous system. Or something like that, anyway.

On Saturday, however, the Gloucester crowd proved there is more to it than the ability to sing very loudly and get under the skin of the opposition. For just a minute or two, Kingsholm discovered its sensitive side, maybe even its soul.
Click here for more

When Olly Barkley was carried off the pitch on a stretcher in the 67th minute, his leg in a splint and a laughing-gas mask over his mouth, it was a pitiful sight.

Of course, you would expect any crowd with a crumb of humanity to offer polite, sympathetic applause in such a case. But a few hardened Cherry and White supporters went further, rising from their seats to applaud the man who has something of a history at Kingsholm.

Some were a little self-conscious as they got to their feet but there was a touching sense of the West Country divide being temporarily healed.

Barkley didn't much take to Gloucester during his year at Kingsholm in 2008-09, nor did Gloucester take that warmly to him.

But I think The Shed holds some respect for Barkley over the honest way he extricated himself from his two-year Gloucester deal, rather than sitting out a second year in a stew of discontent.

There was plenty of baiting on and off the pitch on Saturday and no shortage of handbags being swung but the moment of unity brought about by Barkley's injury was a moment to remember.

That, even more than a seven-try, 56-point match, was proof that the spirit of rugby is very much alive in the West Country.

For Barkley to suffer another leg break just a year-and-a-half after his first fracture is a cruel blow indeed. But he's showing every sign of adopting the kind of attitude needed to weather such a set-back.

Once Barkley finally received his morphine at hospital, he was quickly making wry observations about life in hospital via his Twitter web page.

That sense of humour will stand him in good stead during the long road of recovery. Good luck, Olly.

Super 15 makes summer rugby a hot proposition

I don't know if you saw any Super 15 rugby at the weekend. Luckily, I did. It was a treat.

On a bad day, the southern hemisphere competition can appear like a contest of headless chickens. On a good day, the skills on show leave you wishing you lived on the other side of the world.

Tha handling skills, in particular, are something else. The number of implausible off-loads, deft basketball-style lobs and dexterous inside pops over the weekend was a marvel.

The firm pitches help, of course – there are no mud baths for these chaps to contend with.

If ever there was an advert for summer rugby, this is it.

Life's a Beech at Bath

Loosehead prop Charlie Beech will be moving from London Wasps to Bath Rugby this summer. He is Sir Ian McGeechan's son-in-law and McGeechan is, of course, Bath's director of rugby.
But it looks like he'll be getting a far from comfortable ride.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Marksman Olly Barkley could give Gloucester the bullet

Olly Barkley is in outrageously good form with the boot at the moment, with 15 successful strikes on the bounce. Those efforts haven't gone unnoticed by that big beast of the Bath pack, Danny Grewcock.
If things come down to a kicking duel on Saturday when Bath travel to Gloucester, then the visitors could have the edge; Gloucester fly-half Nicky Robinson has a success rate that's 20 per cent lower than Barkley's.
Read my column in this week's Bath Chronicle here.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The tale of Meehan and Sir Ian

Here, belatedly, is my column from The Bath Chronicle, published on February 17. I'm sticking it on my blog now because Bath's spanking of Northampton on Saturday only served to underscore some of the points. Cheers.

When it was confirmed over the summer that Sir Ian McGeechan would be coming to Bath Rugby, an obvious question was how he would fit in with the existing coaching staff.

Or, rather, how the existing coaching staff would fit around him.

McGeechan has accomplished so much in so many places that his appointment by new owner Bruce Craig got plenty of tongues wagging about how exactly he would work alongside head coach Steve Meehan, a man who had put his individual stamp on the club over the previous three seasons.

I think the club would probably admit there has been a certain 'suck it and see' aspect to the way McGeechan has worked alongside the existing coaching set-up and it's clear his role has evolved since he joined.
Click here for more

When he arrived, his official title was performance director and, while both McGeechan and the club could furnish reasonable explanations of what that role entailed, in my mind at least there remained a few little question marks about the command structure and how exactly Meehan and McGeechan would dovetail.

At the end of November, that title was tweaked by chief executive Nick Blofeld to the more conventional one of director of rugby.

While the club made little of that change of title at the time, saying it was done merely for clarification, I think the more traditional split between director of rugby and head coach has helped McGeechan settle into the club – and the club settle into life with McGeechan.

There is now a clearer, more explicit chain of command off the pitch, and on it there is a greater sense of purpose. Since that change of title, McGeechan has rolled up his sleeves with the pack and, alongside forwards coach Martin Haag, has wrought something of a transformation.

Friday's away win at Sale underscored how the Bath pack is on top of its game again, although the real test will come when the grisly Northampton forwards rumble onto The Rec.

I've also detected a greater sense of assurance and quiet purpose emanating from both McGeechan and Meehan in recent weeks, as though they have a better handle on things and know precisely where they're going.

Results help lift the mood, of course, and Bath have won six out of their last seven games. Even so, I sense the greater sense of assurance stems from more than just results.

I suppose the lesson to learn is that, even the best in the business can take time to bed in.

And that can apply to players too. Bath back-rowers Luke Watson, Lewis Moody and Simon Taylor are superb players and have put in strong individual performances at times.

But, as Lee Mears pointed out this week, they are all in their first full season at the club and it takes time for players to build up an understanding of how their team-mates play.

Luckily for Bath, that understanding seems to be flourishing at just the right time for a tilt at the play-offs.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Demi-god, prodigal son or rock star? Butch gets a special reception in SA

Bath and Springbok fly-half Butch James flew back to South Africa this week for his wedding. But it turns out he had more than one pressing engagement, with the World Cup-winner also attending a glitzy press conference where it was announced he would be joining the Golden Lions in May. Here's my take on the razzmatazz...

Butch James certainly had one heck of a stag party.
Most of us would settle for a night out with the boys – Butch was
seemingly granted demi-god status by a grateful nation.
The South Africa fly-half flew back to his native country earlier this week in readiness for his wedding on Saturday. While out there, he became caught up in a publicity stunt that would make Phineas Barnum and Max Clifford blush.
It has been an open secret for some time that James will be heading back to South Africa at the end of this season for a final hurrah with the Johannesburg-based Golden Lions.
On Tuesday, the Lions ‘unveiled’ their new signing. This required James to fly into a Joburg airport on a private jet supplied by one of the Lions’ minted owners.
Stairs were duly rolled up to the doors and Butch descended to the Tarmac amid a chorus of sycophantic applause from men in blazers.
In front of him was a sea of paparazzi, all desperate to capture this happy day.
I do not know if there was a marching band present.
It was like a prodigal son returning from a self-imposed exile. Or a minor royal visiting some neglected corner of the empire. Or a rock star
returning for a ‘Welcome Home’ gig. Or a bit of all three.
Verily, the reception that greeted Pope Benedict on these shores in September had fewer bells and whistles.
But it made James look like a pawn in the Lions’ publicity machine.
Especially as he was wearing a Golden Lions shirt with the number 10 on the back. With the name ‘James’ above it.
James was promptly shunted in front of the microphones. He
explained how one day he’d tell his children about how great it had been to be involved with such a club.
Butch James is an incredible specimen, a man of such super-human patience and dedication that he has bounced back from five knee reconstructions and two bust shoulders.
Most men would have given up competitive sport completely in the face of such serious injuries and long lay-offs, let alone continue to play at the pinnacle of the game.
More than any other player, he has shaped the way Bath have played over the past four years. His ingenuity and flamboyance on the pitch have made him a joy to behold on The Rec.
But I think the Lions have got a bit ahead of themselves here – and James has been dragged along.
James remains a Bath player until the end of the season and it’s Bath who are paying his not inconsiderable wages at the moment.
Getting James to put on a Golden Lions shirt when he still has more than three months at Bath is a touch previous, in my book.
But at least the shenanigans in Johannesburg show what passion the South Africans have for their rugby – and for James.
And I suppose that in turn should make us grateful that we’ve had him plying his trade at The Rec for the past four years.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Bendy's on the straight and narrow

I've long championed the cause of Bath full-back Nick Abendanon. And in a week when the 24-year-old has been called up to the England Elite Player Squad, there is therefore the opportunity for this blog to let out a small cheer.
Sure, Abendanon only got the call after Delon Armitage (both pictured) threw a strop in front of a doping official and got himself banned.
But Abendanon has his foot in the door now - the first step in anyone establishing themselves in any walk of life. The question is, does Abendanon have it in him to get himself over the threshold and settle in at England’s 6 Nations base at Pennyhill Park in Surrey?
I believe he does. The South Africa-born flyer used to be known for two things: his elusive, weaving running, and his unfortunate capacity to make daft decisions at crucial moments.
Fortunately, the elusive running bit still applies. And while the odd decision can still creep into his game, Abendanon is a far more consistent specimen than he was two years, or even a year, ago.
His defensive play is also under-estimated. For a relatively small guy, he punches a couple of divisions above his weight.
There are two recent examples of that, both in the Heineken Cup. Away against Aironi, Abendanon decked the rotund Nick Williams with such technically superb savagery that the Number 8 was escorted off the pitch to receive medical treatment. On Saturday, in Biarritz, he felled the marvellously named centre Marcelo Bosch when only a perfectly executed tackle would do if a try was to be prevented.
But apart from his own form, there are two other reasons why Abendanon should prosper.
Going into the World Cup in September, England team manager Martin Johnson wants versatile players in his squad who can cover more than one position. It is to Abendanon’s significant advantage that he can play on the wing as effectively as he can at 15.
Over the summer, his exertions for the England Saxons in the Churchill Cup - when he appeared on the wing - won him the Player of the Tournament Award.
His ability to play anywhere in the back three is a big plus-point, just as it is in Matt Banahan’s favour that he can play at centre as well as on the wing.
The presence of Banahan and other Bath players in the EPS should also work in Abendanon’s favour.
With Banahan and Shontayne Hape next to him, it will be like playing in the Bath back line. Things augur well for Bendy.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Should English clubs think twice before recruiting abroad?

On Thursday I broke a story about Springbok Francois Louw being lined up by Bath Rugby to replace the departing Luke Watson.
The story, it seems, is gaining traction in South Africa. As I write, it's the lead on
But, as somebody points out in the comments section on that website, aren't we capable of producing loose forwards of sufficient quality in England?
Bath are not short of young, up-and-coming back-rowers, with home-grown starlets Guy Mercer and Josh Ovens leading the charge. I can't help feeling that the club's insistence on travelling around the southern hemisphere in search of an 'international-calibre' star to replace Watson is a kick in the teeth for these young guys, who have been knocking on the door for a good while now.
Moreover, an all-international back row can be a dangerous thing in World Cup year. Should Bath sign Louw and should Simon Taylor get a recall from Scotland - as his form merits - then Bath's entire first-choice back row of Moody, Taylor, Louw could be away at the start of the 2011-12 season.
Then the home-grown lads really will have to stand up and be counted.

Picture: Francois Louw, front, and Luke Watson during their days playing together for Western Province and The Stormers. Credit: Steve Haag, Back Page Sport SA

When the human being eclipses the sportsman

Sports interviews, particularly in football or boxing, are all too often either choreographed hype or bland platitudes.

Personality is hijacked to make way for some PR message and that message often boils down to meaning the square root of sod all.

Earlier this week, however, I was fortunate enough to interview England's Shontayne Hape. By his own admission, the Bath centre has hit a sticky patch.

He has come in for plenty of stick of late and while he has been way off his best, some of the criticism has smacked, frankly, of the amnesiac.

What most impressed me about Hape, pictured, on Tuesday was his honesty. So often the sportsman can eclipse the human being. Occasionally, we need to be reminded that the human being bit comes first.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

South African knight rides to the rescue at The Rec - again

Former Springbok scrum-half Michael Claassens has today signed a deal that will keep him at Bath Rugby until 2013. Here's my take on the signing. For an interview with Claassens and more of my thoughts, see The Bath Chronicle on Thursday, January 6.

A very good history of Bath during the rugby club’s heyday has recently been published. But when the final word comes to be written on Bath Rugby in the 21st century, it will be a modest South African who couldn’t speak English when he arrived in the city who should receive a chapter all of his own.
For the second time in his career, Michael Claassens rode to Bath Rugby’s rescue today and restored a sense of stability.
A lot of things feel like they are up in the air at The Rec at the moment.
Club skipper Luke Watson has announced he is heading back to South Africa at the end of the season, while World Cup-winner Butch James has also indicated he’d be keen to pack his bags swiftly enough should Bath release him from his contract. Couple that with the speculation that’s been doing the rounds about a new coaching team being lined up by owner Bruce Craig, and the storm clouds of uncertainty were beginning to look ominously heavy.
This morning, Claassens’ peroxide blond locks pierced those clouds when the club announced the scrum-half had signed a new two-year deal.
After four years at The Rec, Claassens could have left Bath at the end of this season owing the club and its supporters precisely nothing.
It was a bold enough move for the Kroonstad-born former Springbok to bring his non-English speaking wife over here four years ago. By upping sticks and leaving South Africa, the eight-cap international was effectively turning his back on further appearances in the gold and green, and taking a step into the unknown.
What Claassens has delivered for Bath since then is season after season of graft, spark and honesty.
A year-and-half ago, this softly spoken gent was handed a poisoned chalice when he was asked to captain the club following the summer’s drugs scandal.
In those circumstances, the captaincy was always going to be a thankless task - but Claassens stepped up and bore it all with an unceasing attitude of composure, politeness and unblinking stoicism. And by the end of the campaign, after a torrid beginning, Bath were playing the most attractive rugby of the Premiership.
With his best mate and half-back partner Butch James more than likely to be heading home at the end of the season, it would have been the easy option for Claassens to follow him back to South Africa,
That he isn’t, but is once again sticking by Bath during a tough period, should be a source of gratitude for every Bath supporter. If you’ve any festive port left over, then you should be preparing a toast.