Rugby Union: Fear of cold shower fires Bath: Steve Bale reports on the start of a West Country rugby power's campaign for a third successive Courage League title on Saturday

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The Independent Online
THE COURAGE Clubs' Championship kicks off tomorrow and, as hardy an annual as the league itself, Bath are favourites to win it - yet again. Even after a surfeit of trophies, their hunger pangs are as sharp as ever.

In this context, this week's resignation of the club chairman and one other committee man is almost an irrelevance, since on and off the field Bath might just as well be two different clubs.

As they set out towards a hat- trick of titles, Bath - their teams, that is - have truly solved the sporting conundrum which states that the continuance of success is infinitely harder than its initial attainment. Since their first, epochal cup win in 1984 they have simply kept on succeeding.

League champions three times in five seasons, cup winners seven times in nine, they have developed a different motivation from any other leading English club. These days their players' desperation is born of anxiety that they are not the ones who break the cycle.

Fear of failure is, as the captain Andy Robinson notes, a powerful incentive. The 1987-88 season was the last time Bath were empty- handed, the memory of their cup exit still etched on the minds of those who took part in it. 'The Moseley feeling was horrible and we simply said that it was not going to happen again,' he said. 'The feeling around Bath was that we let everyone down.

'It's embarrassing even to lose two games on the trot, so to be the team who failed to bring home a trophy would be almost impossible for us to bear. Perhaps the secret is that, although we expect to win, we never assume that we will. Every game has to be treated as a major challenge because we know that every opponent we play, no matter how they play against other teams, will be putting in their supreme effort against us.'

It gets more difficult as other clubs target Bath and Bath's illustrious senior players strive to sustain their interest. Old hat? You would never guess. Robinson, to take the captain's example, is living proof that there is always another goal for a Bath man to aim for: this week he was recalled to the England squad.

It is three years since he became domestic rugby's player of the year and a British Lion at about the time he was losing his place on the England flank. All Robinson could do - all he had to do - was turn back to Bath, for the comfort provided by the extended Recreation Ground family and the joy of playing with his mates.

This is not mere sentiment; it explains the inner strength - a psychological as much as a physical attribute - which has been at the core of Bath's consistent achievements. For instance the England B captain, Stuart Barnes, Robinson's Bath predecessor, has consistently stated he derives greater enjoyment from playing club rugby than he ever did at representative level. He, too, is back in the England fold.

So if, as it is reasonable to predict, Bath set their usual pace it will not have happened by chance. It never does. With each successive trophy comes a fresh challenge: to find new means of maximising playing resources that would be the envy of other clubs even if they were not maximised.

Hence the recent two-match tour to Italy, which was important not for its results - a thumping win over Casale and a narrow squeak against the Italian champions, Treviso - but for the opportunity to experience the new laws at first hand and to enhance the unbridled sense of companionship which is critical in all that Bath do.

In this way they hope to be in perfect shape for tomorrow's First Division opener against Harlequins, a reprise of the cup final four months ago which was decided by Stuart Barnes's last-kick drop goal. Jack Rowell, the coach and patriarch at the head of the Bath family, could not go to Italy; neither could Brian Ashton, his assistant. The players were left to their own devices.

Rowell could not have planned it better, if only because his players had to think for themselves. 'Without us, they had to set their own goals for the season, make their own decisions,' he said. 'They were relaunching themselves for the season in an unfamiliar setting, meeting unfamiliar problems which they had to learn to cope with in their own way.'

This is in line with the innovative thinking which has seen the elite French clubs Toulouse and Toulon and the Romanian national team play at the Rec, the theory being that an unvaried diet would not satisfy the continuing hunger - or the endless need to exchange new players for old. If Bath were to stand still, Rowell suggests, they would end up going backwards.

'What you have to do is change the chemistry, otherwise you stagnate,' he said. 'You can do that through change of strategy, change of tactics, change of personnel, fighting for places and other things. The example I've often quoted is after Arsenal won the Double in 1971. Their manager, Bertie Mee, then bought Alan Ball and said he had done so to change the chemistry. Otherwise the X-factor, even when the players believe they're playing and training at 100 per cent, is not there.'

Rowell has guided Bath to all their triumphs and latterly has branched out by becoming coach of England B. His contribution to the enhancement of the B team's results and status can scarcely be exaggerated and is one in the eye for those who have considered Bath too parochial for England's good. Rowell may be the senior coach in senior club rugby but his willingness to assimilate new ideas, to have an international vision, is a key to Bath's extraordinary record.

Thus he has rapidly turned the lessons of the B tour of New Zealand to the club's benefit: simple things like the numbers NZ teams get to the ball and the pressure they exert when opponents have it. 'When you see this implemented week-in week-out by players who are very average, there's clearly a lot for us to learn,' he said. You could hardly call the Bath players very average but they have never been slow to learn.

The statistics graphically support this: only 10 defeats (two at home) in 57 fixtures since the league was inaugurated in 1987, 41 in a total of 323 matches since the cup win of 1984. It is an unparalleled record of sustained accomplishment and Robinson insists there is more reason than ever for it to persist. The half-backs are the only ones certain of their places.

'There have been times when the Bath players weren't pushed hard enough, when there was insufficient competition for some places, and this showed in some of our performances,' he said. 'But now every player apart from Stuart Barnes and Richard Hill has close competition. Our squad is the best we've had for years.' Courage League One, as it is now called, had better beware.

----------------------------------------------------------------- BATH'S RECORD SINCE 1983-84 ----------------------------------------------------------------- League Cup 1983-84 - Won 1984-85 - Won 1985-86 - Won 1986-87 - Won 1987-88 4th QF 1988-89 1st Won 1989-90 3rd Won 1990-91 1st 3rd rnd 1991-92 1st Won -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)

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