On the banks of the Avon, where Bath play their rugby in a big fish-small pond environment, the 233 days separating Matt Stevens' positive test for cocaine and the nine-month bans slapped on three of his fellow senior players for refusing to take tests of their own, seemed like the Thirty Years' War. "If only we could just get back on the field and put it all behind us," they said, not dreaming for a second that their return to business would end in calamity of a very different variety.
"There is no way in the world that we were a 24-5 team against Gloucester," says Steve Meehan, whose side lost by that deeply uncomfortable margin at Kingsholm last Sunday, much to the delight of those wisecracking supporters in the Shed who took great delight in reminding their fellow West Countrymen of the error of their recent ways. "It was our poorest performance for a long, long time and I didn't see it coming. There was no forewarning and there are no explanations. We did concede 14 points through interception tries, though. Take those out of it..."
If the head coach could wind back the clock, he would ensure that every player in a Bath shirt was as mentally tuned in as Julian Salvi, the new open-side flanker from Australia, whose Premiership debut was something to savour. "Julian operated in a different gear," Meehan agrees. "What we needed was everyone else to be at the races as well." There again, if he could turn back time he would do it by a few months, not a few days.
"At least we can say it's finished now, over and done with," he says, referring to the long-running furore over substance abuse and associated matters. And on the face of it, he is right. Last Monday afternoon, Meehan's co-captains from last season, the flanker Michael Lipman and the centre Alex Crockett, had appeals against their suspensions thrown out by a Rugby Football Union disciplinary panel. But in team sport, as in life, few separations are quite so sharp or clean-cut. Stevens, a quarter of the way through a two-year ban, has opened a coffee shop at the top of town; the Crocketts are a well-known local rugby family; Lipman, a gregarious sort, was hardly short of drinking buddies during his days at the Rec. None of them are likely to disappear off the face of the earth.
"Strong friendships are involved, of course: people grow very close when they play a hard game like rugby and it's sometimes difficult for individuals to handle this sort of situation," Meehan admits. "There is now a physical distance between those who have left the club and those who are still here, but it doesn't mean people won't be seeing each other for dinner or enjoying a few beers together. Some players took what happened in their stride, others were badly affected by it and still are to a degree. But even at the worst moments, I was always confident the club would come out the other side."
It has not come through unchanged, though. Not so long ago, Meehan and his squad preferred not to be reminded of the achievements of the great Bath sides of the "golden decade" that began with the cup final victory over Bristol in 1984. Rather than see themselves as part of a continuum – as a team steeped in the tradition of Barnes and Guscott, Chilcott and Dawe, Hall and Robinson – they put the history to one side and talked instead of "making some history of our own". Now, as a direct result of recent events, the mood is very different. Suddenly, the key figures are as interested in where the club came from as in where it is going. The idea that players can best honour the shirt they wear by honouring those who wore it before them – an idea entirely familiar to the All Blacks, to use the most obvious example – has taken root once again.
"We have a new chief executive [Nick Blofeld] and a new performance coach [John Neal], both of whom are big on the heritage and history thing," Meehan continues. "If you walk into our dressing room now – not that I'd particularly recommend it – each place has a plaque above it, bearing the names of the top three Bath cap-winners by position. We've also put the squad into 'houses', just like they used to do at school. Each house is named after one of the celebrated players of the past and every so often, a current player is asked to speak about that person and his achievements in front of the group. We've had a very encouraging response, especially from some of the academy lads. After the things that have happened here, it doesn't do any harm to emphasise what this club stands for when it's at its best."
Meehan spent much of the summer in his native Australia, and the fact that he was on the other side of the world when the you-know-what was hitting the fan drew some adverse comment from the locals, who rather assumed he would fly back and help sort out the mess. But the way the coach tells it, an early return would have been counter-productive.
"The first thing to mention on this is that the administrators at the club deserve a few accolades for the way they handled the situation," he says. "They acted quickly and showed some real strength. The backbone they showed will be of enormous value to Bath in the future. As for my own situation, the question of my returning was raised at one stage. But the situation had changed. When I left for Australia, the squad for this season was settled. Then players resigned, and it wasn't settled any more. What was my next job, given that any investigating that needed doing was being done by other people? My job was to fill the holes that had suddenly appeared."
Those holes were filled by Salvi, a Super 14 flanker with ACT Brumbies, and another Australian, the New South Wales Waratahs wing Matt Carraro. "There is always an element of good fortune in these things, and the timing happened to be right," Meehan admits. "Julian was looking for something else because George Smith (the world-class Wallaby flanker) had abandoned plans to move to Europe and extended his contract with the Brumbies. As for Matt, there had been some coaching changes in Sydney and he was no longer sure his game would develop there. When you weigh it up, we've replaced quality players with quality players – players just coming into their prime. Given where we were, I'm pretty happy with that."
For a number of very good reasons, the coach believes Bath are better placed to win a major title this season than they were last, when they reached the quarter-final of the Heineken Cup and the semi-final of the Premiership before losing to Leicester in both competitions. The tight forward operation will benefit from Danny Grewcock's return to fitness and Lee Mears' return from a summer's work in South Africa as a Test Lion. Salvi looks like bringing fresh impetus to the back row – with Luke Watson, the high-calibre Springbok, still to arrive, there is real potential in that area – while Olly Barkley, home again after an ill-starred flirtation with Gloucester, will soon be around to kick the goals that weren't always kicked during the 2008-09 campaign. Meehan also feels the support network has been strengthened, not only by the input of Blofeld and Neal, but also by Martin Haag's reappearance at the Rec as forwards coach.
Yet he knows they will be playing, at least for a while, in the shadow cast by the trauma of the immediate past. "When I first came here, I was aware that there was a culture of running rugby that had somehow been lost," he says. "I don't think even our worst enemies would deny that we've gone a good way towards rediscovering it. But of course, the things that happened here mean we have a bigger cultural issue to address, and in a whole range of ways, we're doing that. No club is immune from issues of this kind, but having seen us go through it and witnessed the way people have responded, I know we're very committed to ensuring it never happens here again."Reuse content