Rugby: Callard adds a dash of reality

David Llewellyn finds an old head plotting a long-term revival at Bath
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BATH'S FALL had been so long coming that when they finally landed on their collective backside it staggered everyone with its completeness, leaving players and supporters numb with shock, none more so than the club's assistant coach and sometime full-back Jon Callard.

"It was something that was difficult to comprehend," said Callard of that period from late 1996 to the end of last season. A fly-on-the- wall television documentary left them feeling grubby as the club was hung out with the dirty laundry, they crashed out of the Cup - a competition that they had virtually made their own.

Worse, in a cup tie against London Scottish, prop Kevin Yates was found guilty of turning the sponsors' inaugural season into the Tetley's "Biter" Cup. Their league form slumped as well - for the first time in their league history they conceded 50 points at Saracens.

Halfway through that trot and already without the banned Yates, they lost Jeremy Guscott to a long-term injury and theircoach Clive Woodward to the England job.

Enter Andy Robinson and his assistant Callard. "I remember we lost for the first time in the league up at Leicester in 1998 and that was a bitter pill," Callard recalls. "We were just not used to defeat. Up to then a big factor in our achievements had been a fear of failure. Every match you played in you were subjected to peer group pressure the like of which I have never experienced in any other situation. You did not want to be the one whose mistake cost a game."

They quickly accustomed themselves to defeat, though, at one point last season stringing together an unwanted club record of half a dozen league losses on the trot. "I think because of never having had to cope with defeat like that everyone pressed the panic button," Callard says. "We should have stood back and said, `This is professionalism, we are in a transitional period'. Instead, our own reaction to adversity became our downfall.

"We had expected the success to continue. All right, professionalism had arrived, but as far as we were concerned that would chiefly involve changes off the field. On the field we could not see how it would affect us.

"The departure of John Hall did not help, nor did that documentary. And the press seemed to follow us everywhere. Wherever we went we were the focus of attention. It was surreal. Before professionalism it was only on match days that we were the centre of attention, now it was all the time.

"Players were seen getting into this or that flash car, wearing fashionable clothes and were forgetting that it was all about what you can do on the park. I think other clubs grasped professionalism more readily than we did and that is possibly because they had not had the success that we had enjoyed over the previous 10 or so years.

"I got quite low during that time. I am a pessimist in the best of times. In this the worst of times I looked at the prospect of relegation for the club and job insecurity. A bleak future life flashed before my eyes."

Callard is well qualified to say all this. Since his debut in 1989 Bath have won the cup and league six times. But the domestic honours have dried up since the 1996 league and cup double, although Robinson did coach them to Heineken Cup victory over Brive in 1998.

Indeed Bath's relative domestic anonymity these days means they have yet to put their stamp on the Premiership and the Cup since Allied Dunbar and Tetley's Bitter took them over. But the signs are that they are on the way back. When Leicester visit the Rec today in what is always one of the season's highlights, they will arrive one place behind Bath in the table.

One of the main reasons for hope for the future is that Bath now have a thriving youth policy which is producing dividends every season. Matt Perry, Iain Balshaw, Mike Tindall and Stephen Borthwick - all England qualified and aged between 20 and 22 - are just the tip of the talent coming through.

"We have a crop of 18-year-old who are really exciting," enthused Callard. "They are so good that they are playing for our Under-21 side. They are English qualified for he most part with the odd Welshman thrown in. Centres Simon Cox and Anthony Morris are fantastic players, fly-half Ed Barnes is brilliant - and as frustrating as his famous namesake Stuart at times - Ollie Hodge is an exciting 19-year-old lock. We are giving youngsters a chance, we have a belief in their ability and we are sticking to that policy."

But Callard is not predicting a return to the golden days. That is probably going to remain a unique phenomenon. "This season I think our realistic aim is to make sure we qualify for Europe by finishing in the top four, although that is not to say we won't have a good cup run. But we will never again be complacent. It has taken us three years to learn that."