PARALLEL DECLINES

When Bath and Wigan played their historic cross-code matches last May, few would have predicted their current states of disarray. Yet after a decade at the top, two rugby eras are at an end, and it is a symptom of their current plights that neither club is playing this weekend in the cup competitions they once dominated
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Chris Hewett on Bath

It took Edward Gibbon six volumes to explain the decline and fall of Rome, and very nearly as much word power has been lavished on the demise of Bath as the most successful club side in world rugby contemplates life among the hoi polloi. The West Countrymen may yet end the season as English champions but whatever happens between now and the middle of May, a sense of loss will hang heavy over the Recreation Ground during a long summer of breast-beating and recrimination.

Loss. Bath's vocabulary of triumph, built up over a decade on the back of a fanatical pursuit of excellence, has never recognised any "L" word apart from loyalty, longing, leadership and limelight. Yet as they stumble towards the anti-climax of their first professional campaign, they are firm fixtures in the debit column, having relinquished their Pilkington Cup crown, squandered the services of a brilliant coach in Brian Ashton and, in almost apologetic fashion, sacrificed their director of rugby, John Hall.

Worse than that, they have lost the essential impulse, the life force, that made them great. It was called fear: fear of failure on the public stage, fear of the shame culture that held sway in the most caustic of dressing-rooms, fear of failing to cope with the peer pressure established by clever, waspish psychologists like Jack Rowell and Stuart Barnes.

Professionalism carries terrors of its own, but they are very different from the phobias let loose on The Rec during the dying days of amateurism. Rugby's currency used to be calculated in degrees of respect, as it was when Rowell's titans were dominating the market, but one indisputable by-product of the dash for cash is that players are now more concerned with protecting their salaries than their self-esteem. Why wear the hair shirt in Bath when big money and smart suits are on offer elsewhere?

"I can unhesitatingly say that my motivation was based on fear," says Gareth Chilcott, the front-row icon who went from rogue to elder statesman in the space of 15 eventful years at Bath and is now a vice-president of the club. Irrespective of the fact that he was born in Bristol and now devotes at least part of his working week to his role as Gloucester's marketing manager, the mighty Cooch treasures the umbilical cord that links him to The Rec. He still cares, passionately.

"What you have to understand about Bath was that we were unique, both in terms of the players we had in the dressing-room and in the way those players effectively ran the club. We were unbelievably competitive and our pride dictated that no prisoners could be taken, either internally or amongst the opposition.

"We were a hard old lot, to be honest with you, and when I look at the current side, I sometimes wonder who, if anyone, has the same will-power, the same ability to dig deep for his colleagues.

"When I think of the say we used to have on committee, I still feel amazed; in fact, I can't recall a single occasion when the players didn't get what they wanted. For instance, we were the first English side to regularly stay in a hotel on the Friday night before a big game.

"Historically, teams travelled on the Saturday morning - hundreds of miles, sometimes - and more often than not they would leave their form on the coach. We got fed up with that, so we demanded overnight stays and got them. The same goes for our mid-winter training camps in Lanzarote. I think we had that sorted out well before the England Test team cottoned on," Chilcott added.

"Player power was a big thing at Bath, an essential element in the success story. Of course, we have a change of culture now. The players are employees and they do as they're told. There is no player power now."

And there lies the crux. Bath are no longer state-of-the-art, but the same as everyone else. By allowing any club with a sugar daddy and a modicum of ambition to recreate themselves through the force of the cheque book, professionalism has standardised rugby at the top end. The differences between sides are no longer measured by abstractions - mental approach, focus, desire, physical fitness - but by commercial clout. Either you are rich enough to compete or you are history.

Bankrolled by their local multi-millionaire Andrew Brownsword, Bath are rich enough. But that is all they are. Other teams - Harlequins, Wasps, Newcastle, Saracens and, via a slightly different route, Leicester - are equally competitive and as Chilcott says, the West Countrymen must now search for new means of attaining the supremacy his own generation came to regard as a birthright.

"The professional game was foisted on the clubs, who had no time to prepare themselves for a complete change in the way they operated. In a way, the playing field became level again and the 10 per cent that Bath always had on their rivals was wiped away. Look at Quins. When we played them in my day, we always felt that their forwards were breakable, that they would disappear when we applied real pressure. Professionalism allowed them to go out and buy a pack, so they bought one.

"Some sides have bought well, others not so well. Bath felt last summer that they had a squad of players who could win them the Heineken Cup as well as the domestic double. By Christmas they realised they had bought in the wrong positions and had to go in search of some forwards. That was the nail in John Hall's coffin."

It should not be forgotten that but for Hall, a local product whose emergence as a world-class loose forward coincided with Bath's initial ascent of rugby's Olympus, the wheels might easily have parted from the wagon as long ago as last summer. Strangely enough, that was about the time the side were lording it with Wigan at Twickenham. Brownsword had not come up with the readies at that stage and without Hall's pleadings and persuadings, many of the squad would have taken the money on offer elsewhere.

Ironically, Brownsword's millions both saved the club and holed it below the waterline. The original management structure put in place to oversee the move to full professionalism blew Bath's determinedly individual and hugely effective modus operandi to the four winds, leaving Ashton, for one, deeply disillusioned. The restructuring prompted by his departure put the squeeze on Hall, whose role became superfluous as soon as Tony Swift, his close friend, was appointed chief executive.

In the good old days, the only management structure that meant anything to Bath was the bar rota and the make-up of the selection panel. The players and coaches governed themselves from within, their decisions rubber-stamped by a committee content to live under a benign dressing-room dictatorship.

Perhaps, in hindsight, it was too much to expect a club who had ruled one roost to completely to dominate another, dramatically different as it was, with the same degree of iron-fisted success. The new hierarchy of Swift, Andy Robinson, Clive Woodward and Phil de Glanville cannot afford to use Rowell, Barnes and Chilcott as their blueprint. Their day has gone. It is time to move on.

Bath RUFC

The glory years

Courage League

Champions: 1988-89, 1990-91, 1991-92, 1992-93, 1993-94, 1995-96

John Player Cup/Pilkington Cup

Champions: 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1989, 1990, 1992, 1994, 1995, 1996

Middlesex Sevens

Champions: 1994

CURRENT PLIGHT

Courage League

In third place

Heineken European Cup

Lost 22-19 to Cardiff in quarter-finals

Pilkington Cup

Lost 39-28 to Leicester in sixth round

Dave Hadfield on Wigan

It was justifiably billed as the collision of the dominant forces in the two codes of rugby when Wigan played Bath at league and union last May. Wigan had been on top of their sport for even longer than their union counterparts; unbackable favourites for every competition they entered.

Nine months on, the mood at Central Park is very different. The dynasty might not have crumbled, but there are cracks in it that could hardly have been imagined last spring. Yet it can be argued that getting involved in the distraction of cross-code adventures - they also entered and won the Middlesex Sevens last May - was one of the first signs that all was not well. Wigan had been knocked out of the Challenge Cup for the first time in nine years.

It had long been a suspicion that the club depended more heavily on the annual income from Wembley than was healthy. The eagerness with which they grasped an alternative money-making opportunity confirmed it.

There was a propaganda value for rugby league in those excursions, especially when Wigan won by a landslide while visibly easing up at Maine Road and then swept through the Sevens. But neither their coach, Graeme West, nor their football manager, Joe Lydon, agreed with taking on extra commitments.

Both of them actually played in the game against Bath under union rules, not merely because they fancied trotting out at Twickenham but to try to protect current players from injury.

In retrospect, both men - while restricted by the terms of their respective severance agreements with the club from being openly critical - feel that their expedition across the great divide last May might have cost them the first Super League Championship.

In June they failed to cope with the spoiling tactics employed by the London Broncos at Central Park and were held to a 10-10 draw that ultimately cost them the title. Hopes rose again when they beat St Helens, but that victory was followed immediately by the departure of Scott Quinnell to Richmond.

This was another sign of radically changed times. A lot of work - his and that of the coaching staff - had gone into making Quinnell an effective rugby league forward. Now he was gone, with Wigan making no attempt to keep him, and West was deprived of one of his few alternatives in the front row.

The head-hunting of Quinnell symbolised a growing problem. League relished the recognition by a wider audience of the skills and athleticism of its players, but when the union clubs started waving their cheque books, it proved a double-edged sword for Wigan. Henry Paul, Jason Robinson, Gary Connolly and Va'aiga Tuigamala were all recruited for winter spells in rugby union, and Martin Offiah returned to the Home Counties in a joint deal that would see his services shared by Bedford and the Broncos.

The League could have intervened in that and other deals because Offiah, Paul and Tuigamala had all signed Super League loyalty contracts that allows News Limited to say where they can and cannot play. But Wigan were desperate for that clause not to be invoked. There was a simple reason for that: they saw in these loans, as well as in the permanent departures, a way to lighten a crippling wage bill.

Wigan's salary commitments to their players had probably been beyond their means since they first began to assemble a world-beating team in the mid-Eighties. Their chairman, Jack Robinson, had inherited an over- burdened budget from his predecessor and now the game's chief executive, Maurice Lindsay, but it was the need to keep players out of the grasp of the Australian Rugby League that had pushed it over the brink.

The ARL, which was fighting back against Super League's coup, signed Connolly and Robinson, who are due to decamp when their current Wigan contracts come to an end. Keeping their other players proved ruinously expensive for Wigan. "You can't blame the players, but a lot of mediocrity was very well rewarded," says one insider who was present at those negotiations.

But while any device which whittled away at that wage bill was seized upon, there was a price to be paid for those economies. When the players loaned to rugby union returned for the Cup tie against St Helens two weeks ago, they were either injured, stale or out of condition. Inevitably, Wigan went out of the Cup for the second year running.

The club had already lost one of its key off-field personnel. Lydon had left in December after 11 years at the club, by mutual agreement in the sense that Wigan did not offer him a new contract and Lydon, frustrated by not being allowed to manage, saw little point in being designated as the club's football manager.

That is one key role that remains vacant, and Wigan have also never appointed a chief executive - an omission for which they could have a proportion of their Murdoch pay-out withheld.

Those empty chairs are indicative of the areas in which Wigan are falling down on the job. For a club which has become the epitome of professionalism on the field, they are surprisingly amateurish off it. Clubs which made a success of the first season of Super League - such as St Helens and the Bradford Bulls - have invested heavily in their administration. Wigan are still run the way rugby league clubs used to be, by a board of directors comprising, among others, bakers and furniture traders.

The controlling figure is Robinson, who is a fan by inclination and an antique dealer by occupation. Robinson, who faces criminal charges next month over a feud with a local newspaper, is a genuine enthusiast, but that will not save him from the scorn of the paying public if he is seen to be presiding over the disintegration of a great side.

Tuigamala has now gone, which sticks in the collective throat despite Wigan's desperate attempts to make it seem that it was all down to his determination to go. There are still players, the likes of Robinson, Connolly and Andy Farrell, who are the best in the British game in their positions, but there are others in the first-team squad who would never have been signed a few seasons ago.

West, as coach, has been made the scapegoat for defeats in the matches that mattered. Sales of season tickets are moving slowly. Further financial problems are building up which will not necessarily be solved by the proposed sale and lease-back of Central Park. There is no doubt that most Wigan fans are unhappy. Many have known nothing but success and they will swiftly withdraw their patronage if they are asked to pay to watch bad rugby or - even worse -losing rugby.

At Central Park, itself depressingly scruffy on three of its four sides, they complain about the impatience of the fans, but that is to miss the point. They have never had to learn patience, and the bitterness of their disappointed expectations is the extra curse that comes when the mighty have fallen.

Wigan RLFC

The glory years

First Division

Champions: 1987-88, 1988-89, 1989-90, 1990-91, 1991-92, 1992-93, 1993- 94, 1994-95, 1995-96.

Challenge Cup

Winners: 1985, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995

Regal Trophy

Winners: 1983, 1986, 1987, 1989, 1990, 1993, 1995, 1996

Premiership

Winners: 1987, 1992, 1994, 1995, 1996

World Club Challenge

Winners: 1988, 1992, 1994

Middlesex Sevens

Winners: 1996

CURRENT PLIGHT

Super League

1996: Finished runners-up to St Helens

Challenge Cup

1996: Lost 26-16 to Salford in fourth round

1997: Lost 26-12 to St Helens in fourth round

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