Craig's masterplan to revive Bath glory days gets off to a rocky start
New owner has energised the club but after Biarritz debacle questions are being asked
Friday 15 October 2010
Brad Davis, a senior member of the back-room staff at Bath, describes this weekend's Heineken Cup visit to Aironi, the weakest side in the competition, as "massively important to us if we're to have any aspirations in Europe this season". This being the case, it is probably as well that the West Countrymen are unlikely to need a last-minute drop goal to secure victory. The art of the drop is not a favourite topic on the banks of the Avon right now, although it is very definitely on the agenda.
In a jaw-dropping example of game mismanagement, Bath did not even attempt to "do a Wilkinson" against Biarritz at the Recreation Ground five days ago. By failing to recognise a match-winning opportunity that was staring them in the face, the key decision-makers – from Luke Watson and Michael Claassens to Sam Vesty and Olly Barkley – played straight into the hands of the Basques and ensured they and their colleagues would spend the week coming to terms with the fact that early elimination is barely a gnat's crotchet away.
"We've talked it through," Davis said, speaking with glorious understatement. "We've discussed the fact that we left points out there on the field, that we didn't execute." Were the coaches alarmed at the flawed option-taking of their senior players? "I wouldn't say alarmed, but we were disappointed," the skills and defence specialist replied. "If you ask any of the people involved, they'd accept that a poor call was made in a grade-A position. If we were to find ourselves in the situation again, I'd be dumbfounded if the same thing happened."
The Biarritz defeat was even more wounding than the unexpected home surrender to Gloucester nine days previously. Bath, one of a tiny handful of pioneering clubs who understood the importance of establishing a top-quality European competition and the first English side to succeed when it finally came to pass, are in an odd place at present. They are as wealthy as most teams in the northern hemisphere, thanks to the investment of the new owner Bruce Craig, but solutions to pressing issues on and off the field are proving elusive. The building of a stadium fit for the early 21st century rather than the back end of the 19th – either on the Rec, quite possibly the most fought-over rectangle of sporting land in Christendom, or on a brown-field stretch of old industrial land known as the Western Riverside – is still in the realm of science fiction, while the building of a fresh, young, vibrant pack is proving problematic.
Indeed, the only serious recent signing (if we leave to one side the injury-prone loose forwards Lewis Moody and Simon Taylor, neither of whom will see 30 again) is Sir Ian McGeechan, who arrived as performance director in the summer. There are knowledgeable fans who doubt whether the great Lion's working relationship with the head coach Steve Meehan will survive into the medium term, let alone the long, and those same supporters believe the former England coach Andy Robinson, working with the Scots, will return after next year's World Cup. Robinson knows Craig of old and goes back years with the chief executive, Nick Blofeld.
If anyone is able to energise the club it is the new owner, who matches Nigel Wray of Saracens for enthusiasm – no mean feat – and can happily go toe to toe with the mega-rich Toulon financier Mourad Boudjellal when it comes to splashing the cash. "Bruce doesn't simply want Bath to be one of the giants of European rugby," said Davis. "He wants Bath to be the European giant."
No one questions Craig's ambition, but in light of his unusual, not to say startling decision to join the after-match "huddle" on the field last Sunday, some might ponder his sense of appropriateness. Players are at their lowest in the moments after a painful defeat, and tend to crave their own space. How would the Roger Spurrells and Gareth Chilcotts of yesteryear have reacted to a committee man intruding on private grief in so public a manner? Let's put it this way: they would not have needed the full 140 characters available on Twitter to frame their response.
"Bruce complimented the guys on their effort," said Davis when asked to reflect on the incident. "We're an honest group and we'll accept honest feedback, whether it be from the supporters or from the chairman. We're prepared to cop it on the chin if it's constructive."
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