In 2010, Bruce Craig decided to buy his local rugby club and attempted to take them back up to the top of the English game where they had presided for so many years during the late eighties and early nineties.
The Somerset born businessman almost did just that in 2015 when, under the guidance of head coach Mike Ford, Bath Rugby were playing an attractive, attacking style of rugby that made them almost untouchable in the second half of the season. The Blue, Black and White army poured into Twickenham but some early errors against a disciplined Saracens side saw them fall just short at the final hurdle.
The next season came and went with an unravelling of Bath’s attacking play which meant a ninth placed finish. Mike Ford was released unceremoniously and not longer after, the attacking brains and flair of George Ford and Kyle Eastmond followed. It was rumoured that Ford Senior had negotiated a new contract for Eastmond to extend his stay at The Rec only for Craig to pull it from under his feet in the belief he wasn’t worth that sort of money.
A full review of the club and its workings was undertaken and Todd Blackadder was duly appointed as Director of Rugby alongside his trusty companion Tabai Matson who assumed the role of Head Coach.
No one expected miracles in the first season but a fifth-place finish was achieved and entry back into Europe’s elite competition was secured.
Progress had been made and some stability looked as though it had been put in place.
In September of 2017 though something happened that changed the landscape completely. Matson left his post with immediate effect and travelled back to New Zealand for family reasons.
The position of head coach was never back-filled and the void of rugby knowledge that was left was gaping.
Bath miraculously qualified for the Heineken Champions Cup last year on the very last day but that was merely papering over cracks. Won eleven but lost eleven whilst being knocked out in the group stages of the European Cup does not equal success for the once giant of the English game.
Girvan Dempsey has since been recruited as the attack coach from Leinster which was a statement of intent from the owner but the rewards are certainly not being reaped from this acquisition.
Bath are stagnant and the usually accommodating and patient natives are getting restless.
The west-countrymen’s attacking game is turgid at best. No game plan is evident and a one-dimensional formation around the fringes of the breakdown is slow and predictable.
Injuries and international call ups have not helped and need to be taken into consideration but the simple fact of the matter is that the squad is not strong enough. These international fixtures happen every year so it’s nothing new and they should be prepared for. They haven’t been prepared for at the luxurious training facilities of Farleigh House and you can only blame the coaches and owner for that.
Whilst all of this is, or in some cases isn’t happening, there is an announcement that Blackadder has had his contract extended until 2020 and that Stuart Hooper will take over from the former Crusaders Head Coach when he leaves.
The fans have been left bemused by all of this as it is fairly clear that the team are heading in the wrong direction under Blackadder’s guidance.
Hooper is loved by the fans following his playing days in the famous shirt but what qualifies him to be a Director of Rugby suddenly?
His job title now is ‘General Manager’ yet the description on the Bath website claims he is ‘Performance and Player Development Director’, which is described below as:
‘a role which includes supporting the coaching staff in developing player skills and running the Performance aspects of the Rugby department.’
If that is the Job description then I am not convinced that the former second row is succeeding at it. On a match day he is the water boy and doubles up as the link from the coaches gantry to the players.
Something is not right behind the scenes because on Sunday, Bath fielded their strongest side of the season but nothing had changed but the names on the back of the shirt.
Messrs Louw, Underhill, Cokanasiga, Mercer, Rokoduguni, Burns, Stooke and Ewels were finally reunited in the domestic shirts yet they still couldn’t impose themselves on a home fixture against a mid-table team.
Kahn Fotuali’i looked like an OAP at times behind the breakdown as he meandered around offering no threat whilst taking an age to arrange his forwards into some sort of barrier for his next box kick.
If players such as the ones named above can’t be coached to tear through teams on a regular basis then serious questions need to be asked.
Blackadder is on his last legs and if there is one team you don’t want in town when you are trying to save your job then it is the reigning European Champions, half of which beat the All Blacks less than a month ago and who are also smarting from defeat to Toulouse in the last round of fixtures.
If the score becomes cricket-esque, as some fear it may, then Blackadder has to go. There will be no coming back from that.
If he does go then Bath’s multi-millionaire owner is going to have to get his cheque book out again.
Francois Louw needs to be nailed down to a player/coach role where he can mentor the likes of Underhill and Mercer. It may mean that you carry on losing him for international duty next season but the short-term pain will be a huge long-term gain when he will probably retire from international duty after the next World Cup. The former Western Province Stormer has stated that he is happy in Bath with his family and feels settled. He has Bath, both the club and the city, ingrained in him and possesses an aura that makes people want to follow him into battle.
Anthony Watson has signed a contract extension as has Semesa Rokoduguni but Jonathan Joseph’s future is still uncertain. At 27 and despite his injuries he is worth extending just to warn off the Bears in Bristol who continue to stalk his signature.
At the helm there will be a man at the Rec this weekend that Bruce Craig and Girvan Dempsey may want to corner and speak to.
Stuart Lancaster has risen from the coaching flames like a phoenix since the 2015 World Cup and many credit him rather than Leo Cullen for Leinster’s success last season.
The former England Head Coach still lives in the U.K. with his family and commutes weekly to Dublin. There will be a temptation now, with a restored reputation intact, to resume his coaching career whilst living at home with his family in England.
Not only has he now proved himself as a coach again but he has done it with the dignity, humility and more importantly, the honesty that Bath need right now.
The issue is, can Bruce Craig and Todd Blackadder be honest with themselves and put the needs of the club first with the same humility?
Photo Credit: Matt Buck via freeforcommercialuse.org