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.