Bath’s high-profile coaching group led by Gary Gold arrived midway through 2012, so by necessity they spent last season, when the Rec crew finished seventh out of 12 in the Premiership, juggling their predecessors’ resources. Not any more. As Matt Banahan, the scorer of Bath’s second try in Saturday’s 27-20 win over Leicester, put it: “You have always got a settling in period with coaches and with players. Coaches obviously want their squad and the players they want to come in, and sometimes they are working with players when they would rather have different ones. So this year we have had that teething out of the way and we have got a squad we want to build on.”
The ongoing removal of Leicester’s head coach Richard Cockerill to the naughty step – the voluble former hooker has five weeks still to run in his ban from making matchday contact with his players – accentuated the perception of Bath deploying a cast of thousands in the tracksuit department. Leicester’s depleted team eked a commendable bonus point on the 100th anniversary of this fixture, with Cockerill’s assistants Paul Burke and Geordan Murphy in charge on the sidelines. Meanwhile the Bath boot room of Gold (director of rugby), Mike Ford (newly re-titled as head coach), Toby Booth (first-team coach but previously the boss at London Irish) and Neal Hatley (forwards coach) pondered the goings-on en masse. Nine of the players they have recruited since last year took part here, including the first try-scorer, Jonathan Joseph.
“You don’t win anything in the first two games of the season,” said Banahan, referring to this and the opening 21-0 victory at Newcastle. “You have to be a realist and put your marker down on the pitch, and at the dirty end of the season we have to see where we lie. The average age of the squad is young and we are moving forward. As long as we are moving forward in the right direction it’s happy days.”
Happy indeed, and relieved too at this win, as Leicester never relented despite the champions being without 13 players, including seven England internationals, among whom Louis Deacon, Geoff Parling and Toby Flood are likely to return at home to Newcastle this weekend. Manu Tuilagi and Ben Youngs may be fit for bench duty, at a pinch. Mathew Tait is not far off, either, but Tom Croft’s reconstructed knee will take at least six months to heal.
Bath missed their injured inside centre Kyle Eastmond but his stand-in Gavin Henson recovered from a wobbly opening on his first start for six months to do what he has always done well. Henson kicked the ball long, he made his tackles – one head-on collision with Logo Mulipola had the Welshman staggering back almost in the manner of his famous bar-room spat in pre-season – and he spotted the correct pass with the minimum of fuss for Banahan’s try that put Bath 21-3 ahead at half-time.
Thereafter the question for Bath’s populous brains trust was how to quell Leicester’s perennial resolve. The home scrum was generally moving forwards – oh, how the Rec loved that – until what looked like the pre-arranged substitution of four forwards 10 minutes into the second half. By contrast, Leicester’s England and Lions prop Dan Cole did an 80-minute shift for the second week running. After the changes, Bath were penalised for not scrummaging straight but David Mélé’s 71st-minute kick from halfway fell short. Had it gone over, Bath would have been reined in to a lead of 24-23; instead they re-found their punishing poise to draw penalties out of Leicester in a driving maul and a ruck, and the 20-year-old recent former Tiger, George Ford, converted the second of them to finish with 17 points.
Scorers: Bath: Tries Joseph, Banahan; Conversion Ford; Penalties Ford 5. Leicester: Tries Mafi, Slater, Goneva; Conversion Mélé; Penalty Mélé.
Bath: A Watson; S Rokoduguni, J Joseph (T Biggs 64), G Henson, M Banahan; G Ford, P Stringer (M Young 50); P James (N Catt 50), R Webber (R Batty 50), D Wilson (A Perenise 50), S Hooper (capt, D Day 50), D Attwood, M Garvey, G Mercer (A Fa’osiliva 62), L Houston.
Leicester: N Morris (O Williams 64); S Hamilton (N Briggs 42-47, D Bowden 50), V Goneva, A Allen (capt), A Thompstone; R Lamb, D Mélé; L Mulipola, T Youngs, D Cole, E Slater, S de Chaves, S Mafi (B Stankovich 31-40, T Waldrom 63), J Salvi, J Crane (J Gibson 73).
Referee: G Garner ( London ).