The way Woody Allen tells it, the world is populated by good guys who sleep well and bad guys who have a lot more fun when they’re awake. Bath spent the first seven months of this season on the side of the angels before rising one day last month to find everything in pieces: their unbeaten home record blown to smithereens, their best player crocked, their stadium modernisation plans rejected by a judicial panel. It was then that they went in search of the devil inside themselves.
“I’m not the kind who goes out of his way to get players fired up before a game,” says the former England defence strategist Mike Ford, who as head coach has been running the show at the Recreation Ground since the last of the West Country club’s many back-room upheavals, which led to the marginalisation and eventual departure of the South African rugby director Gary Gold. “Actually, I’m quite the opposite. But I’ll admit that last week I did raise the temperature. I knew we’d have to play with emotion if we were to stand a chance of winning up there.”
By “up there”, he meant Gloucester, where Bath were on an eight-year losing streak. Kingsholm is only 37 miles from the Rec but it is foreign territory to the men from the Georgian city, and hostile too. (Famous fanzine headline circa early 2000s: “A warm welcome to our friends from the a******* of the universe.”) Last weekend the hostility level was off the scale, by any measure you care to use: red cards (two), yellow cards (five, plus a couple more of the retrospective variety), on-field violence (the mass brawl towards the end of the game was pure Old Testament), off-field shenanigans (aggressive chanting, a bottle thrown, the referee shepherded from the field by stewards).
Lines were crossed by both teams but one in particular was of interest to Ford. “The fact we were able to win under the circumstances in which we found ourselves – behind on the scoreboard late in the game, having played much of it with men in the sin bin and in the most intense of atmospheres – was huge for us. It moved us forward as a side.
“Yes, there was some detail missing; one or two players let things slip in the heat of the contest. Yet right at the end, when we needed some intelligent decisions, there was enough calmness about us to make the correct calls.
“There are certain points in time, for clubs and individual players alike, where you find yourself operating under a different kind of pressure. When I was in the England coaching set-up, I remember people like Ben Youngs and Chris Ashton coming into the team and performing with a freshness and a sense of freedom that took the breath away. Then, after a run of success, they started to freeze up because the increased expectation meant they were in another world suddenly. We reached one of those points last weekend, I think.
“We’d had that rough spell in March, when we were knocked out of the LV=Cup at home, lost Francois Louw [the brilliant Springbok back-rower] to injury, had the Recreation Ground stadium plans knocked back and then lost a big Premiership match to Sale, again in front of our own supporters. People took those things together and started talking of a mini-crisis. I thought we’d dealt with it pretty well going into the Gloucester game, but that trip to Kingsholm, with all the history and baggage, was the acid test.”
Bath are the most improved side in England, not only in terms of results but in entertainment value too, and whatever reservations some supporters may have had about the treatment of Gold, who was managed out of the club after just a single season in charge, there can be no denying that Ford, together with his fellow coaches Toby Booth and Neal Hatley, has transformed things on the banks of the Avon. In recent times, only Brian Ashton and Steve Meehan had produced a truly distinctive brand of attacking rugby at the club. If Bath make the Premiership semi-finals – and with the almost-relegated Worcester heading their way this afternoon, they have a wonderful opportunity – there may be a case for adding Ford’s name to the list.
His account of his rise to the top job is fascinating. “When I arrived at the club as part of Gary’s team, there was no base, no foundation, to Bath’s game,” he recalls. “It was that serious. We simply weren’t in a position to play the kind of rugby we wanted to play.
“Gary put his philosophy in place and we spent last season concentrating on the fundamentals, but there were further discussions last summer and, as they unfolded, it became clear that Bruce Craig [perhaps the most ambitious of the Premiership’s owner-chairmen and definitely the most hands-on] wanted us to play in what he considered to be the ‘Bath way’.
“It took us a while to identify exactly what that was, but basically he felt that our rugby should have a certain style – almost to the point, if not quite, of preferring to finish second playing stuff the supporters wanted to watch than finishing first playing something a lot less attractive. It was a difficult time for all of us: I felt like piggy in the middle. But the changes were made and, once we’d sussed out between us how we wanted to approach the challenge Bruce had set us, we started to make progress.”
The evidence is there for all to see. Last season, when Ford was concentrating solely on defence, Bath conceded 29 tries in 22 regular-season matches – only Saracens were more parsimonious – while scoring 44 of their own. This term, they have already allowed their line to be crossed on 33 occasions, but are on course to hit the half-century mark on offence.
“There was a defence meeting every week last season,” Ford says. “This time round, we haven’t had any. It was a conscious decision to tilt the balance towards the attacking part of our game and while things have tightened up since the must-win matches have started kicking in – instead of an 80/20 bias towards attack, it’s probably nearer 65/35 now – I still can’t find the time to have one of those meetings I used to be so keen on.
“But, to tell you the truth, I don’t miss them. I was bored with being a defence coach, having spent nine years doing the job. One of the nice things about my current role is that it gives me the chance to turn all that experience on its head: to take the things I least wanted to be confronted with as a defence specialist and find ways of introducing them into our attacking game.
“More than that, though, I’m interested in creating a culture that bright young English players can understand and buy into and believe in. It’s why we brought George here [the gifted outside-half George Ford, his son, who broke into the England side during the Six Nations], why we were keen to get Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph to The Rec and signed Henry Thomas and Sam Burgess for next season. We want to build something that will last, and you don’t do that simply by paying big money for hardened professionals, no matter how good they might be.”
So why stick with an old stager like Gavin Henson, who has not always been seen as a team man? “We’ve re-signed him because he’s played his part here,” the coach replies. “If he hadn’t, the system would have spat him out.”
It seems Ford is a very different coach from the one who, almost a decade ago, had a brief spell in charge at Saracens before embarking on a long stint with England. He does not disagree. “Saracens came too early for me,” he admits. “I thought I could perform the role – you always think you can do things, don’t you? – and I was good enough technically, but in man-management terms it was a different story. I was nowhere near ready. So when the England opportunity came up, I was able to keep my head down and concentrate on what I knew.
“Over that period, I became better at forming relationships with players and keeping those relationships strong. That’s the crucial thing, because there’s never a day without a drama in this job.”