No one expected Bath, still one of the great names in world rugby despite falling a long way short of world-class standards over the last decade, to find themselves a new owner before building themselves a new stadium, but yesterday, the France-based multi-millionaire businessman Bruce Craig materialised as if out of nowhere to buy the club lock, stock and barrel, thereby bringing to a sudden end the 14-year stewardship of Andrew Brownsword, one of the original union entrepreneurs who changed the face of the club game in England.
Unlike Brownsword, a self-confessed rugby novice who bought the club in 1996 because he felt it represented the best of the city he loved, Craig has a strong union background. Born in neighbouring Bristol, he was a good enough as a schoolboy player to be a final triallist at England Under-19s level and went on to perform at a high standard in Paris with Metro – now known as Racing-Metro 92, who are challenging hard for a place in next season's Heineken Cup.
In his other life, he was making serious money on the distribution side of the international pharmaceuticals industry, and in January he and his fellow shareholders sold their business for the not inconsiderable sum of £975m. A tiny fraction of that figure would transform Bath's fortunes and re-establish them as one of Europe's biggest hitters, alongside Leicester and Toulouse, Leinster and Munster.
Craig, who has lived in France for more than 20 years, has already started the process of moving the club's operational headquarters to a rather grand out-of-town location at Farleigh Hungerford, a few miles south of the city. Plans are also afoot to develop an elite training facility on site – something for which the players have been praying since time immemorial. The fact that they will soon find themselves changing in an old chapel adjoining the main building says all that needs saying about the power of prayer.
More significantly, Craig has promised to cast a fresh light on the age-old issues of where Bath should play their rugby, and how many people should have the chance to watch them do it. "The Recreation Ground is unique – one of the most evocative, iconic and beautiful sports venues in the country," Craig said. "Unfortunately, it is also woefully inadequate and outdated. We need to press on with the development of a new stadium that will be a vital component in producing a financially successful club. I intend to find a solution, to refocus our thinking and our efforts. I am committed to securing a new stadium with a capacity of 20,000-25,000 and hope to confirm our plans within the next 12 months."
Brownsword, something of a reclusive figure, confessed to a bittersweet feeling as he saw the entire 100 per cent of his holding in the club pass to his successor. "It's an emotional day for me," he admitted. "We've had our ups and downs over the last 14 years [he was no doubt thinking of the 1998 Heineken Cup triumph in the first instance, and last year's depressing and destructive drug-related scandals in the second] but I believe professional club rugby has matured in the business sense and certainly believe it to be sustainable in its present form. Bath is a small city with a huge rugby heritage. I believe Bruce is the right man to protect and enhance that heritage. I was never interested in consortiums or partners. I wanted an individual, someone special, to take over and Bruce has the passion to move things forward."
Talks between the two men started in 2008 and were accelerated when Nick Blofeld, who met Craig at university, took over as Bath's chief executive last year. Yesterday, Blofeld stopped well short of saying that professional rugby on the Rec had a future."It's our spiritual home," he acknowledged, "but there are great complications, as everyone knows. All I can say is that we want to keep the rugby club in the heart of the city."
It may well be that under Craig's custodianship, Bath will quickly cut the cord and establish a new home on old industrial land on the western edge of town.
England will begin Six Nations on a Friday
England will play a Six Nations fixture on a Friday night for the first time next year – and it will not be any old fixture, either. Martin Johnson's team will play Wales under lights in Cardiff in the opening match of the tournament on 4 February, a move driven by the broadcasters, who believe the timing will maximise their audience. As for those supporters who prefer to watch the games in person... well, they have been bottom of the priority list for a good while now.
Ireland's first match at the redeveloped Lansdowne Road will be against France, this year's Grand Slam champions, on the second Sunday of the competition, while England's annual Sabbath outing will be against the Scots on 13 March. The final fixture will be the France-Wales meeting in Paris six days later. It will kick off at 8.45pm.
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