Bath, the city: with its Bath stone buildings, creamy yellow in the September sun, rising up and around like the sides of a colosseum. It is a natural amphitheatre; all the roads seem to lead towards the centre. And under an azure sky, with the light bringing forth the blue, black and white of its most treasured sporting asset, everyone is drawn in. The Recreation Ground, nestled into the heart of this old Roman domain, too big for its home in truth, overflows with people. Because there is new breath in the lungs, the eyes are wide, there is a renewed beat pulsing through previously tired muscles; Bath Rugby are back atop the Aviva Premiership table.
The fact that last season didn’t work out is well documented. It was a proper puzzle. Everyone who knew English rugby furrowed their brow. The same team as the term before but yet, the engines weren’t firing. The bonnet was opened, some fine rugby minds gathered around it, tinkering and tweaking, trying to work out the problem. The team spluttered and coughed their way over the line, ninth best in the campaign. Close enough to the bottom for people to lose their jobs, far enough away from yesteryear’s Twickenham final for players to leave and find pastures new.
But yesterday, Bath overcame a pretty able Worcester side. There was a first half uneasiness, where the home fans felt a familiar chill but come the final whistle, a five point victory had been secured. Somerset’s finest were once again running and scoring with a comfort that only good teams can produce. Add to that a win at the Gardens and a dismantling of the Falcons last weekend and, once again, you have one of the best sides in the league. The reason? Home fans could probably cite a myriad but having spent time with him yesterday, for me there is one big rationale. And I’m not going to talk credentials, what Todd Blackadder has achieved previously isn’t really the issue here. Sure it helps, but I feel the difference for Bath this year is down to something inherent in the man’s personality.
Blackadder spoke to me both before and after the match. As part of the TV coverage, Director of Rugbys from both clubs have to front up. The Bath man’s cadence didn’t alter either side of his club’s pulsating encounter. He spoke earnestly and quietly. His hands held in front of him like a young boy. He stoops ever so slightly, walks at a pace that looks slow but his long legs cover more ground than you think. His eyes possess a trusty twinkle, a smile never too far from his face; there is a sincerity but also a hidden levity. And this is what I think he has brought to this famous old club. Sure, rugby in the Premiership is a serious business, but it should also be fun.
I asked Blackadder what he said at half time to turn his team’s fortunes around. Trailing 6-17, we’d all watch the Warriors stretch the home side, creating two very neat try scoring moments. The Leroy Houston homecoming party looked to have fogged the mind of the Bath fifteen. It wasn’t clicking, they were forcing moments of ascendancy, trying too hard to create a suitable shindig for their returning No.8. “I didn’t say too much,” said the Director of Rugby, “I just reminded them of our processes, what we should have been doing. With the sort of players we have, that’s all I needed to do.”
And here’s an example of what I mean. A different personality could have come in, looking at the state of the place, and started throwing his weight around; shown people he was in charge. But the former Crusader isn’t that sort of chap. I’ve heard tales of one of the backroom team entering a meeting equipped with all sorts of evidence as to their thinking. But Blackadder’s response was to trust the individual. “He just said ‘yes’,” the unnamed source disclosed. “I was ready to argue my point, but he’s just happy to trust the expertise around him. That’s what we all needed. It’s funny, but it really works.”
Look at George Ford. A man most at risk from the summer’s fall out. A lad with the strongest personal connection and most likely to be affected by a new boss. He was brilliant yesterday; devastating towards the end. “He is world class,” said Blackadder, when I mentioned the pre-season quotes about his similarity to Dan Carter. “George was fantastic for us today. A world class operator who was wonderfully ruthless towards the end. You have to love that.”
There are still work ons and issues to resolve; Bath lost another back rower in David Sisi yesterday but, having spent time in his company, there is no doubt in my mind: Blackadder is a man who can cope. He has found a club and a fan base in desperate need of looking after. Haemorrhaging players, struggling to win, with dissent creeping in amongst the ranks, this club, in no uncertain terms, was in free fall. I left the Recreation Ground yesterday sure of one thing: the silver browed New Zealander has caught Bath, looked them in the eye, and whispered the most reassuring of lines: ‘It’s ok, I’ve got you.’ It might be overly simplistic. But sometimes, we just need the right person to catch us.
Sam Roberts © 2016. (Text only). All Rights Reserved