Bath desperate for tomorrow today

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It took a while to find it in the video collection. Gathering dust, in behind the Blackadder, Alan Partridge and Bottom tapes, but almost as much of a comedy classic. Ah, The Rugby Club, what a treat.

You remember The Rugby Club. No, not Sky's gleaming weekly magazine, but the BBC series that tracked Bath FC (founded 1865) during their metamorphosis into Bath Rugby (we are a brand now, you know). A good idea at the time, as England's most rampantly successful club tackled the first full-blown season of the open era, went spectacularly wrong.

There was the obligatory moneybags backer, Andrew Brownsword, who had made a fortune from greetings cards with cuddly bears on. There was the not-so-cuddly bear, John Hall, in charge of a squad who had just won their fourth league and cup double. Among them, Phil de Glanville, soon to be England captain, opining that the old farts' committee were no longer relevant. And dear Jon Sleightholme, pitching up at the gents' outfitters in his sponsored car with the earnest question: "Are we wearing shirts tucked in or out these days?"

It seems a long time since 1996. "We want to be the Manchester United or Liverpool of rugby," smiled Hall back then. Some chap called Pienaar said the same about Saracens at around the same time. But though Hall had every reason to expect his prophecy to come true, it did not happen. After 16 trophies in a dozen years, Bath have won just one since: the Heineken Cup of 1998. Significantly, only four of the team that edged out Brive in that final remain to lead the present fight against the unthinkable – relegation.

So Bath host Leeds on Saturday, and it's not funny, with the loser staring the drop in the face. Ding dong, the Avon is calling. Leeds have been in the Premiership for one season. Bath, in common with only Leicester, Gloucester, Wasps and Harlequins, have never been out of it.

Brownsword is still around but, according to the club's press office, "does not do interviews". No problem, as chief executive he is there to pull the strings, not push in the scrum. The Rugby Club had shown us the look of horror on his face when he had been asked to pose with a ball. "I wouldn't know how to handle it," Brownsword said.

But could he have done more to handle the crisis? Bob Calleja, Bath's general manager for two years, thinks probably not. "Andrew has invested nearly £5 million in the club," Calleja said. "He took it on as an investment for the community, when nobody else was queuing up to buy professional clubs. Last year we were £194,000 adrift, and Andrew baled us out yet again. I can't speak more highly of the team we've got together off the field."

And on the field? Bath, says Calleja, stick rigidly to the £1.8m salary cap. (One wonders, en passant, if the magnificent team of old could have been put together at today's prices.) Even if revenue was boosted by expanding the 8,200-capacity Rec – a High Court judgment in July on the ground covenant will be crucial in this regard – the make-up of the squad is a delicate balancing act.

"We have invested a tremendous amount into youth development," said Calleja, "but it takes time to reap dividends. Too many senior players left the club in one go and, with hindsight, we relied too much on the younger players. That said, half-a-dozen senior players have been injured long-term [Mike Catt, Matt Perry, Kevin Maggs and Gareth Cooper are currently out]. We went to Munster for a friendly in pre-season and the young team were superb. But the first Premiership game at Leeds [a 10-6 defeat in September] was absolutely disastrous, and those young heads dropped."

Last summer's signing of England's Danny Grewcock from Saracens to partner Steve Borthwick in the second row was not enough. Fore and aft of Grewcock, the pack has too often been second-best. The cap-laden backs have suffered, and Bath are the only team in the Premiership without a try-scoring bonus point.

Last month, after 13 years of service as full-back and latterly coach, Jon Callard departed, and Michael Foley, a novice for all his 50 Australian caps, was appointed team director. The club are still seeking a director of rugby. "We had one or two names in mind," said Calleja, "but they can't leave their current contracts." Shades of 1996, and the hiatus when Brian Ashton exited, to be followed by Hall, and Clive Woodward came in.

In fact, to judge by his predecessors, if Callard was going anywhere it should be a job with England. Jack Rowell, Ashton, Woodward, Andy Robinson – it is a well-pounded route. Robinson watched last week's home defeat by Northampton, grimacing as a beaten team did a lap of "honour". Rowell was there too. Callard, currently in limbo but possibly heading to a Welsh club, should have been given longer, Rowell said.

Leeds have won five Premiership matches at home, but only one away. Three weeks after The Rec, they travel to Harlequins. Calleja is confident. "Looking at Bath's run-in compared to the other teams, we should survive. There is no reason, in fact, why we shouldn't finish in the top eight and have a crack at the play-offs." The Rugby Club in the Second Division? Surely not.

Premiership run-in

Bath Wed 10 April London Irish (A) Sat 13 April Leeds (H) Sun 28 April Newcastle (A) Sat 4 May Gloucester (A) Sun 12 May Wasps (H)

Harlequins Sun 14 April London Irish (A) Fri 26 April Wasps (A) Fri 3 May Leeds (H) Sun 12 May Sale (A)

Leeds Sat 13 April Bath (A) Fri 19 April Leicester (A) Fri 3 May Harlequins (A) Tue 8 May Sale (A) Sun 12 May Gloucester (H)