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.

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