Once we were giants

Bath 27 Leicester Tigers 21 – Twickenham – Saturday 8th April 2017

There was a time when Bath and Leicester Tigers would meet at Twickenham because they were the best teams in the country playing in an end-of-season shoot-out. On Saturday they were there for a regular-season fixture because Bath have a marketing department who have worked all hours and conjured a crowd numbering 61,816 in the warm spring sunshine. The game was officially billed as “The Clash”; less catchy, but they could have gone with “Two Faded Champions In Search Of Former Glory”.

The struggles of two of England’s greatest clubs have been curious and compelling to observe these past few years as they have attempted to snatch at the dominance that once seemed theirs by right. The league table tells some of the story: Leicester were fourth and Bath were fifth at start of play. They were wrestling each other for a place in the play-offs. At the end of this exciting but error-strewn contest Leicester are fourth and Bath fifth, albeit separated only on points difference. They are within reach of the top and yet also miles away.

In their greater times, they were models of success management. They knew the formula and they stuck with it. Now they are shuffling the cards, hoping that some day they will turn up an ace. Matt O’Connor arrived for his first day pitchside as Leicester’s head coach.-the third this season. Bath’s policy for their coaches, meanwhile, seems to have been that of the revolving door.

If there is any continuity here, it is Matt Banahan. He is Bath’s longest serving player: he joined in 2006 and has lost count of how many coaches have been and gone in that time.

Here he is trying to do the maths. “Maybe ten, maybe 13 different coaches,” he said. He then goes through them, one by one. He settles on 11. Then he remembers who he forgot: 12.

“Every coach picks up a squad, everyone gets excited and you get a few good games,” he said. “It’s just about maintaining it. We’ve got the squad to do great things; we just need to find that plateau to perform at a high level.”

Banahan is not intending to be critical. Not remotely. However, he could hardly make the point better. Bath rise and fall, their fortunes fluctuate; there is no plateau. What would happen if you stuck with one management team instead?

He will not say this, but I can: either Bruce Craig, the Bath owner, is too consistently poor at selecting his coaching teams; or he should stick by them and allow them to soak up the disappointments and turn them into successes.

Craig is not alone though. Shotgun management has become the order of the Premiership this season. (Sound familiar?)Your team hit hard times, you look around for answers, you sack one of the coaches. Leicester have done it three times this season. Rugby clubs used to pause and then react at the end of the season; this time, though, mid-season, five of the 12 Premiership clubs have made changes to their coaching structure.

And what of the clubs doing well? Well, there are only three of them and they tell the same story from the opposite perspective. At Saracens, who at present are, by some distance, England’s most successful club, Mark McCall has been director of rugby for six years. Top of the Aviva Premiership table? Wasps — where Dai Young has also been in place for six years. Second in the table are Exeter Chiefs; Rob Baxter, the head coach, was at the club before some of his players were born.

Does this not suggest that continuity wins? Banahan’s answer is straight to the point: “You’d obviously like that. But rugby, football, cricket — it’s a business, you are judged on results and that is how people keep their jobs and lose them.”

Bath have not had continuity. Not a glimmer of it. Yes, they started the season well, but the fixture list was kind to them and allowed them to build a head of steam against some of the weaker teams. Of late, though, they have run out of puff. They have lost their past three Premiership games, were humiliated 53-10 by Saracens, failed to score a try at home to Wasps and somehow conjured a defeat against Bristol.

The game’s other subplot revolved around the two fly halves, George Ford, of Bath, and Freddie Burns, of Leicester, who will swap clubs in the summer and will likely have something to prove to both sides.

Well into the final quarter it seemed that the aspirations of Bath had been roasted in the Twickenham sunshine, burnt to a frazzle and sent back to the kitchen. With 67 minutes gone Leicester led 21-13. , and then, finally, West Country hell was let loose.Taulupe Faletau went on a weaving run  and Anthony Watson cruised up outside with a trademark supporting run. The kick made it 21-20, and two minutes later, Faletau made big inroads again, the ball arrived in the hands of Watson via Banahan and it was 27-21 with the kick. Leicester were by now paying the penalty for their failure to cash in on their authority. Fly-half Freddie Burns commented:”Great occasion, disappointing result.”

Hid personal duel with Ford probably ended even. Both had their kicking boots on, and Leicester fell behind only after Burns had left the field injured.

Twickenham was magnificent on Saturday afternoon. There was a new crowd there, new fans; that is what Bath want to achieve and good luck to them. And they happened upon an almighty contest, full of history, over brimming with significance.

Mike Miles

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