Rugby Union: Patience key to surviving rush hour

Jonathan Davies argues that a waiting game is a better idea than the sack race
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The Independent Online
John Hall's departure from Bath last week has set many heads shaking in sorrow at this latest example of the cost of professionalism in rugby union. I am sorry for John, too, and for the sad situation Bath find themselves in - but I am not sure that professionalism should take the blame.

If the bottom has fallen out of Bath's season it is more to the credit of their rivals than it is the fault of any one person at the West Country club, and it is a pity that they haven't been a little more patient.

In a way, it was inevitable. It is easy to be wise after the event but Bath were the club everybody had as their target this season. They had dominated the English club scene for so long - Courage club champions for six years out of the last nine and Pilkington Cup winners for the last three years - that there seemed no stopping them.

If professionalism had not happened, I have little doubt that the steam- roller would have continued to roll. They have been so professional in attitude over the years that their squad strength seemed good enough to beat off all challenges. Their rivals would have taken a long time to attract the quality of players necessary to match them.

All of a sudden the game goes open and the restrictions are out of the window. The other clubs had the freedom to spend to build up their squads quickly and the money to do it with was in plentiful supply.

You may argue that Bath had the same freedom. So they did - but they did not have the same incentive. They were the men at the top and few would have doubted their right to be favourites to win everything again this season.

In fact, they lost a very valuable player in Ben Clarke, and although they spent money on players like the Argentinian hooker Federico Mendez and took the rugby league boys Jason Robinson and Henry Paul on loan, it has not been enough to preserve their domination over teams who have been very quick to catch up with them.

How much of the blame for this can be fairly laid on John Hall it is difficult to say. But it is impossible for him to be responsible for all the problems. Perhaps the rot had set in even before he moved into the managerial post after he finished playing in 1995. When you consider the personnel Bath have lost over the past few years, the deterioration may have been already under way. On the playing side, they have been unable to replace Stuart Barnes and Richard Hill at half-back and, when Clarke left, another gaping hole appeared.

When Cardiff beat them in the quarter-final of the Heineken Cup back in November, I was surprised how much their team-work had suffered. I mean no disrespect to their newer players because it was not a lack of ability but a lack of control that they were suffering from. Too often, people judge players on individual skills alone and overlook the amount of influence they should be exerting on a game.

Off the field over the last few years, Bath have lost the imposing presence of Jack Rowell and, more recently, Brian Ashton quit his post. I don't know about any in-fighting at the club but, now that the paymasters are involved, different priorities apply. Bath used to thrive on their club spirit but it seems to have faded.

Perhaps their years of success had spoiled them and they were not prepared to face up to set-backs, like the loss the Pilkington Cup tie to Leicester last weekend. But Leicester are the prime example of how quickly their rivals have organised themselves. I suspect it will need a lot more than the sacking of John Hall to sort it out.

I know John and played against him when Bath and Neath, my club at the time, disputed the unofficial title of best club team in Britain in the mid-1980s. He is an expert on psychological warfare but I have always thought that he is a great rugby man, hard but straight. If he has the appetite, he can do an excellent job elsewhere, but he will go down in history as the first casualty of the new era.

He won't be the last because there is not a manager or a coach who can be unaware of the pressures crowding in and, by the end of the season, clubs who have fallen short of success will have itchy sacking fingers. Everything has been a rush in rugby this year, even the rush to be ruthless. I'm hoping to stay in the game in a coaching or managing capacity when I finish playing, but I am under no illusions about how tough it is.

It would help if the game's benefactors were to follow up the money they've poured in by adding a bit of patience. Once a coach has squeezed the best out of his players, the team will only improve by reinforcing it, and replacing him does not hide that fact.

Only time will tell if the club have taken the right step forward, and the load now falls on the shoulders of Clive Woodward. One thing is certain - they have got to be patient now, whether they like it or not.