Rugby Union: Hall's fall is sign of the times

Out of the Pilkington Cup, struggling in the league, Bath -once the most feared club in rugby union -has now sacked an icon. Chris Hewett reports
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The Independent Online
Bloodstains on the carpet, tear stains on the cheek. John Hall's imminent departure from the crumbling fortress of Bath Rugby Club had been the subject of feverish clubhouse speculation since before Christmas. But when push finally came to shove yesterday, the atmosphere at the Recreation Ground was one of genuine shock and grave sorrow.

Shock that Bath, so strong in their bonds of brotherhood and so rooted in the supremacy that brought them 16 league and cup trophies in the 14 years between 1984 and 1996, should have fallen so publicly from grace, that their transition from the uncomplicated world of amateurism to the unforgiving challenge of professionalism should have been so badly mishandled.

And sorrow? Yes, plenty of that. Hall, a world-class wing forward whose career was cruelly undermined by persistent knee trouble, commanded huge respect from even the most critical of Bath supporters. In his own way, he was every bit as much an icon as Jeremy Guscott or Stuart Barnes or Gareth Chilcott.

More impressively still, that respect was shared by his peers. Tony Swift, the former England wing who now sits on the management board at the Rec, once described his old club-mate as "the best player I ever had the good fortune to play alongside." He was far from alone in that view.

Sadly for those who retain romantic notions of what rugby used to be, it is precisely that closeness that is at the root of Bath's predicament: out of the Pilkington Cup, struggling in the Courage League and shorn of the swaggering self-confidence and deep-rooted strength of character that made them the most feared club side in English rugby history. Suddenly, it is a rough world out there, and old pals' acts cut no ice now that money is at stake.

Hall initially landed the team manager's title in the early summer of 1995, before professional rugby was fully on the English agenda. It was not a hard-headed business decision, but an emotional one: forced by injury to forgo his farewell appearance in the Pilkington Cup final against Wasps, he was swept into the job on a wave of player-power - always an important element in the Bath fabric - within days of the Twickenham showpiece.

His appointment effectively marginalised two of his most familiar playing colleagues and fellow England internationals, Chilcott and Richard Hill, who had both taken on high-profile back-room roles at the Rec. Chilcott distanced himself from the club almost immediately and, within a few weeks of the start of the 1995/96 campaign, Hill joined Gloucester as coaching director.

Still, all seemed well when Bath tied up yet another league and cup double last May. Hall worked like a Trojan throughout the summer to fend off big-spending rivals and hold his squad together until the club negotiated their own sugar-daddy deal with a local multi-millionaire greetings card tycoon, Andrew Brownsword. Ben Clarke, enticed by a lucrative bid from Richmond, was the only first-team regular to leave and that seemed to pale into insignificance when Henry Paul and Jason Robinson, two brilliant rugby league talents, crossed the great divide to play alongside the likes of Guscott and De Glanville.

Neither signing proved especially successful, however, and discontent at Paul's reputed pounds 5,000-a-game deal gathered pace. When Bath were dumped out of the Heineken Cup by Cardiff at the quarter-final stage, rumours of a rift between Hall and Brian Ashton, the chief coach, began to circulate. By Christmas, Ashton had taken extended leave from his post. By early January, he was gone.

That prompted a reshuffle at the top. Brownsword, hardly a rugby man by instinct but keen to protect his initial pounds 2.5m investment, decided to involve himself in the day-to-day running of the club and Swift took over as chief executive with a powerful and wide-ranging brief. Hall, his position weakened by damaging newspaper publicity following alleged incidents in a city wine bar after a victory over Harlequins in December, looked vulnerable.

The last straw came on Saturday, when Leicester inflicted the most comprehensive defeat on Bath in a decade. Hall, clearly shaken afterwards but still prepared to answer the hard questions, fell back on self-deprecating humour. "It's not the end of the world," he said. "It just feels like it is."

The irony is almost too bitter to contemplate.