Rugby Union: Bath's tale of prophets and loss

Jack Rowell, Richard Hill, Brian Ashton, Clive Woodward. England may be a rugby nation sold short by its well-chronicled paucity of quality coaches, but Bath can look back on a grand tradition of successful tracksuited sorcerers. How many more can they
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The Independent Online
The blue-collar rank and file of Bath's rugby industry are gathered in the Recreation Ground bar and they know bad tidings are at hand. Tony Swift, old mucker turned chief executive, casts a fraught eye over his audience and quietly informs them that Brian Ashton, the most accomplished club coach in the country, has resigned. The camera closes in on Jeremy Guscott as he stares blankly at the floor, affected like everyone else by an atmosphere bordering on the funereal. Another valued member of the family has passed on.

There are many revealing scenes in the BBC's enthralling fly-on-the-wall series about the most talked-about club side in the world game - the first episode goes out on 1 October - but this one catches the West Countrymen in the raw, absolutely at their lowest. It provides irrefutable proof, if any were needed, that a coach's departure can be every bit as wounding as that of a great outside-half or an unerring goalkicker. In the currency of professional rugby, coaches are no longer the pound coins in the back pocket but the gold bars in the bank vault.

Bath confronted and successfully overcame the Ashton trauma nine months ago, but they now have to go through the process all over again following Clive Woodward's appointment as England's first full-time national coach. Unlike his predecessor, Woodward left on the very best of terms; his sojourn at the Rec was button bright but fleeting, far too brief to allow more than a superficial attachment. But as Swift candidly admitted earlier this week, his departure hurts. Badly.

"We wanted to keep Clive on board, it's as simple as that," he said. "With him in place, alongside Andy Robinson and Jim Blair, we felt we had a world-class set-up, the sort of backroom team that would underpin any ambitious club and provide the environment in which success could be achieved. I've said before that had Clive wanted to stay, the Rugby Football Union could have offered us a million and not got within a mile of him. We wouldn't have released him for any job but the one he's accepted."

As a player, Swift saw Jack Rowell lured by England and watched Richard Hill, his coaching skills in their infancy but already acknowledged in the lower reaches of the national set-up, down tools and disappear to Gloucester. He also played and thrived under Ashton and was not in the least surprised when Ireland, cottoning on unusually fast to a potentially advantageous situation, snapped up the old maestro within hours of his departure from the Rec.

"It's inevitable that success on the field reflects positively on the coaching team and we've got to live with that inevitability," Swift agreed. "Andy Robinson could be next - probably will be, in fact, because he's a very, very good coach who is growing more effective by the day - but I can't deny that the repeated loss of such capable people hits us hard."

In one important sense, Bath are better equipped to survive Woodward's leave-taking than they were Ashton's resignation. By Robinson's own confession, the coaching L-plates were still pinned to his back when he found himself propelled into the No 1 role back in January. Now, after an extremely challenging and often arduous apprenticeship, he appears firmly in control; certainly, his side's grimly determined Heineken Cup victory at Pontypridd a fortnight ago bore all the bloody-minded, tough-nut hallmarks of Robbo the bone-hard flanker as well as Robbo the fledgling tactician.

But he badly needs the input of an imaginative, mould-breaking backline specialist of the calibre of Ashton or Woodward. When Rowell was left on his ownsome following the abrupt resignations six years ago of his partners in the original Gang of Three, David Robson and Tom Hudson, he was able to draw on the support and expertise of a small but profoundly influential coterie of senior players. Unfortunately for Robinson, there is no equivalent of a Stuart Barnes to fall back on.

Swift is adamant that Bath have identified a ready-made replacement for Woodward - he plans to make an announcement early next week - and insiders suggest the new boy is already on the pay-roll. That would indicate one of two intriguing possibilities: a promotion for the diffident and elusive John Palmer, who is currently working with the second-string United side, or, more likely, a new role for Jon Callard, the full-back who, but for contractual difficulties, would now be director of rugby at Worcester.

Both men have coached extensively at schools level, but the similarities end there. Palmer, who won three England caps in the 1980s as a centre and might have won a whole lot more but for a certain Mr Woodward, has been talked about as a potential front-line coach for years but has proved impossible to pin down. Callard is more up front, more openly ambitious and is an outstanding communicator.

However Bath choose to respond to this latest manifestation of the Recreation Ground brain-drain, they need to do it quickly. The middle of a European Cup campaign is hardly the ideal time to engage in transition, seamless or otherwise, and while club has been handsomely compensated by country for the loss of Woodward's services, money has never been able to buy stability. Once again, the camera lenses are zooming in, searching for insecurity behind the bold, confident exterior.

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