Signing sparked ironic downfall

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The Independent Online

Jon Callard achieved something deeply significant for Bath last summer, something the West Countrymen had signally failed to manage for the best part of two decades. It had nothing to do with silverware – the so-called "Liverpool of rugby" had won any amount of the stuff since their first John Player Cup victory in 1984 – and everything to do with recruitment. By signing the England and Lions lock forward Danny Grewcock, the head coach had finally attracted a world-class second-row forward to the Recreation Ground.

Callard's illustrious predecessors – Jack Rowell, Brian Ashton and Andy Robinson – had found this task entirely beyond them. They had chased any number of high-class locks, including Leicester's Martin Johnson and Bristol's Simon Shaw, but had been repeatedly knocked back. As a result, they were forced to grow their own: John Morrison, Damian Cronin, Andy Reed and, most notably, Nigel Redman. Rowell considered his failure to bring a top-notch engine-roomer to the banks of the Avon to be the blackest mark on his brilliant career as a club coach.

So Callard's successful foray into the transfer market set up the new campaign very nicely... until he realised that he would be required to save Grewcock's top-dollar wages, a sum well into six figures, by laying off key personnel from every other area of the squad. Martin Haag, the long-serving Cornish lock, was shown the door, as were the two highly effective Super 12 players from New Zealand, Angus Gardiner and Jon Preston. Ben Clarke, past his best but still a talismanic figure in the back row, pushed off to Worcester in high dudgeon; Adedayo Adebayo, an England wing, left for Italy.

Predictably, Sod's law kicked in. Weakened by injury and short of experienced back-up because of the financial restrictions imposed by the club owner and chief executive, Andrew Brownsword, Bath played their opening game of the season at Leeds with a team unrecognisable from the one that reached the inaugural final of the Zurich Championship three months previously. Packed with wet-nursed kids, they lost.

They proceeded to lose again, and again, and again; by the end of September, the once perennial champions of England were bottom of the top-flight heap and asphyxiating fast. The coach was becoming increasingly frustrated with the younger, bolshier members of his international contingent – Tom Voyce, Gareth Cooper and, most notably, Iain Balshaw all succeeded in getting Callard's goat – and the more mature members of the brat-pack, like the goal-kicking midfielder Olly Barkley, began to lose confidence as the atmosphere worsened. In desperation, Callard rushed the injured Mike Catt back into the side, simply to cover a few cracks ahead of the Heineken Cup.

Catt masterminded an extraordinary victory in Biarritz, a repentant Voyce put a wonderful hat-trick of tries past Swansea the following week and Callard's charges went on to top the Heineken pool rankings with six wins from six matches. Sadly for the coach, the relevance of that particular form line was exposed when Llanelli won a quarter-final at The Rec without breaking sweat. The real Bath was not the Bath that had won in south-west France, but the Bath that had lost in the West Riding.

At bottom, Callard was undone by two closely related failings: the constraints introduced by Brownsword, supposedly the richest of the Premiership owner-investors, and his own lack of clout at board level. Even Brownsword, a self-confessed rugby illiterate, could see that Bath needed beefing up in the front row of the scrum, as well as the second row, yet he chose not to release the funds that would have enabled Callard to chase Italy's Andrea Lo Cicero, one of the big hits of last season's Six Nations, or bid for the services of the Scottish Lion, Tom Smith. By the same yardstick, Callard never summoned the courage to say: "Cough up, or find someone else to do your coaching."

The irony is that Brownsword recently deactivated the force-field around his wallet: Callard recently pitched for Corne Krige, the Springbok flanker, and is rumoured to have approached two French internationals, the Stade Français loose-head prop Sylvain Marconnet and the Biarritz loose forward Serge Betsen.

When Callard succeeded Robinson in 2000, he said: "This is an immense job, and I will know within a year whether I am up to it." Almost two years down the road, Brownsword has made up his mind for him. The fact that the owner is equally to blame for Bath's nosedive will not make the Premiership's latest fall guy feel any better.