Rugby union: Nicol's mission to rouse the giants

Paul Trow finds the new captain of Bath determined to rediscover past glories
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The Independent Online
English rugby was certainly different last season. Players were officially paid for the first time, Europe's club competition was launched, and Bath failed to win a single trophy. On the Richter Scale of change, the first two departures from tradition were ground- breaking, but the third was earth shattering. Only once during the previous 14 years - in 1988 - had Bath ended a season bereft of silverware and normal service was expected to continue despite the advent of professionalism.

But early defeats by Wasps and Leicester jolted Bath before losses to Cardiff and Leicester prematurely terminated their European and Pilkington Cup campaigns. Things were not gelling off the field either. Brian Ashton, the coach, was ousted and within days had been snapped up by Ireland. Then the manager, John Hall, was sacked.

Andy Robinson, a back-row colleague of Hall, took over as coach and, with Clive Woodward helping him and Andy Nicol installed as the captain, optimism is in the air again at the Recreation Ground.

Nicol, an articulate Scot whose innate ebullience has helped him back from serious injury on several occasions, appears to be just what Bath need at the helm.

"We haven't lost many games over the last 10 years, but we got nothing last season after coming out with bold statements about wanting to win every competition," said the 26-year-old scrum-half.

"Our priority is the league. In cups you can get through or be eliminated on the bounce of the ball. The European Cup is great for business, but the league is the benchmark as to how good you are. In the past, we might have only picked our best team for a few games - Leicester, Wasps, and Harlequins, maybe - but you do that now at your peril.

"We currently have four world-class players out injured. Jeremy Guscott [arm], Adedayo Adebayo [ankle] and Federico Mendez [shoulder] are recovering from fractures while Simon Geoghegan has just had another toe operation. It's a lot to lose at the start of a season."

Nevertheless, Nicol denied that signing the Lions wing Ieuan Evans on a two-year contract was a stop-gap measure. "He's one of the best finishers in world rugby. He's done everything in the game, yet coming to Bath should be a new challenge for him." Like Evans, Nicol, who won the last of his eight caps in January 1994, comes from a staunch rugby background - "my grandfather George Ritchie won his first cap against England in 1932. Almost 60 years to the day later I made my debut, against England."

Nicol was offered the Bath captaincy only last month. "I knew I was in the running and there was a lot of banter among the players, but Andy [Robinson] didn't ask me until two days before we returned for training. I enjoy everything about being captain - public appearances, after-dinner speaking, writing the article in the match programme. It's easy when things are going well. The true test is when they go badly. My role will be to make tough decisions. I hope I'll be big enough to make them when the time comes."

He warmed up for his new responsibilities by captaining Scotland's tour to South Africa and Zimbabwe this summer. "It was a tough tour, but it went well on a personal level. It was important for me because last year I had three bad injuries and missed a lot of games."

Injuries and Nicol have almost been synonymous since his involvement with the 1993 Lions party in New Zealand (as a replacement for Robert Jones) lasted all of seven minutes. A ligament injury delayed his debut after joining Bath in January 1995 from Dundee High School Former Pupils, his home-town club. Then came last season when he had to sit it out while Gary Armstrong and Bryan Redpath contested Scotland's No 9 jersey.

In one of those ironies invariably thrown up by fixture computers, Nicol has an early chance to test out both rivals. "Gary is a tremendous player and still has a lot to offer - we'll have a great battle when Newcastle visit the Rec for the league match on Saturday. The Borders are our second opponents in the European Cup so I'll face Bryan soon as well. I'm desperate to get back on to the international scene."

Ambition is a Nicol trademark. "When I left university with a business studies degree, I made it clear I wanted to move to England. I was close to joining Gloucester before Brian Ashton contacted me. After that, it was no contest and I signed for Bath." With such enthusiasm on board, the trophy cabinet at the Rec should soon be groaning again.