Acid test for injury-hit Bath after Irish debacle
They are third from bottom of the Premiership, they have just been reduced to 50-odd points' worth of dust by the reigning Heineken Cup champions – their worst defeat, by a mile, in 14 years of European competition – and their second team have won nothing, not even a losing bonus point, all season. One way or another, Bath are in a bad place, as two senior players, the Springbok scrum-half Michael Claassens and the England prop David Wilson, conceded yesterday. Claassens described last weekend's spanking by Leinster in Dublin as "embarrassing", while Wilson settled for "unacceptable".
On Christmas Eve, the West Countrymen travel to Northampton for a league game of considerable significance. This is bad news for two reasons: first, they lost 31-10 the last time they visited Franklins Gardens (and were lucky to get 10); secondly, this weekend's fixture is the only Premiership game of the day, and will therefore attract a big television audience. The last thing Bath need just at the moment is more people watching them than is absolutely necessary.
"It doesn't help when you have 16 people on the injury list," argued Martin Haag, who played in some outstanding Bath sides in the 1990s and now carries a heavy burden of responsibility as forwards coach. "When you have only 24 players fit and you have to go to Dublin to play as good a side as Leinster... well, it has a bearing on events. But I'm not trying to make out that last weekend's performance wasn't disappointing. The worst aspect was that our defence, which has been superb all year, was the thing that let us down. Of the seven tries they put past us, three or four were due to missed tackles.
"We don't think we're a million miles away: if we were getting things wrong as a coaching team, the players would soon let us know about it. We talk constantly here about commitment, trust and excellence. I can't fault the commitment from the squad and I know they have tremendous trust, both in each other and in what we're trying to achieve here."
That left the "excellence" bit. Was there much evidence of that about the place? Haag, a lock forward who was honest as the day was long during his playing career, could not, hand on heart, claim it was there in abundance just at the moment.
When Bruce Craig, a multi-millionaire who made his pile in France and still lives there, bought Bath from Andrew Brownsword a couple of seasons back, many assumed he would restore the club to its former grandeur in double-quick time. The players may have a country mansion for a training headquarters as a result of Craig's investment, and they may have a director of rugby as celebrated as Sir Ian McGeechan to oversee their efforts there. But baronial splendour does not a great side make. England discovered the truth of that under Martin Johnson, and Bath are learning the same lesson.
"There's this perception that we have pots of money and world-class training facilities, and while I admit we're very lucky in some respects, it's absolutely not the case that we're pampered," said Haag. "It's the people who go out there on the field who make a club and anyway, there's still a salary cap in force, to which we're sticking. Are we spending £4m over the top? No we're not."
Given that Bath are more fortunate than most in terms of financial backing, is it therefore the case that the salary cap will have to go – or at least be raised substantially – if English clubs are to compete with the French and Irish at Heineken Cup level? "I think that's probably so," Haag replied. "If we want to be really competitive, it would help to have another six quality players available to us as and when we need them."
Talking of salary caps, the four Welsh regions – Cardiff Blues, Newport Gwent Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets – have just come up with one, agreeing a £3.5m spending limit on their senior squads in recognition of the worsening economic climate. A number of leading players, including the World Cup forwards Adam Jones and Luke Charteris, are already being linked with moves abroad next season, and more may follow.
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