NEAL Hatley’s appointment as Bath head coach was a surprise to some, but not others. Having come back from the 2019 World Cup as England scrum coach, and rejoined the club with the title of defence and forwards coach, he has won the big promotion.
I’m pleased for him that he has been given the chance to make his mark at a club with a great tradition in the past of winning. Hatley’s remit as Bath head coach is to get the team winning again. His experience with England, and what he has learned from Eddie Jones, is important, but he has also made it clear that he recognises that need to find his “own way” as a head coach.
Hatley described his head coach role as focusing on “delivering great performances on the pitch”. However, I always feel that the hardest job for a head coach is picking the team, and it is not clear yet whether Bath’s director of rugby, Stuart Hooper, has handed over the responsibility of head selector to Hatley.
The titles of director of rugby and head coach can be quite difficult to decipher. It looks as if Hooper is heading up the rugby department, organising everything around what supports getting the Bath team playing at its best, and Hatley is responsible for the on-field performance.
Hooper will apparently be at most training sessions and will set the culture. Integral to that will be the team he manages – all the heads of the different rugby departments – who will instill that with the help of the playing leadership group. It will be a challenge, but normally, you see a lift in performance when a new coach comes in. Bath had been talking about putting this structure in place for some time, and it’s obviously been given the go-ahead during the lockdown period.
Bath have a number of players who are in the England team, and with internationals like new scrum-half signing Ben Spencer, Sam Underhill, Charlie Ewels, Will Stuart, Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph, Semesa Rokoduguni, Roko Joe Cokanasiga and Ruaridh McConnochie, to my eyes they should have a team capable of being at least top six in the Premiership. The addition of Welsh internationals Taulupe Faletau and Rhys Priestland makes the case even stronger.
Bath begin the return to action at sixth in the table, and although they are in a bunfight position, they have a good chance of making the play-offs if they get a good start.
To win the title at the moment is a bit of a long shot for Bath, and, although Exeter are favourites, I see Bristol as the club with the best chance of catching them because of their backline match-winners.
For Bath to make a challenge they have to be at their best and fully fit, and there will be a big onus on Spencer to hit the ground running after arriving from Saracens. It will be a bit of an eye-opener for him to be behind a Bath pack rather than the Saracens forwards – and it’s unlikely to be quite as comfortable an armchair to begin with.
Spencer has got pace, makes breaks, has a good box kick, and can kick goals, and if Bath want to guarantee being in the European Cup next season, he will be crucial. The best sides have consistent quality at 9 and 10 and strong packs, and if Spencer can bring that consistency, and also help Priestland to get to 8/10 as well, Bath will be in business.
The other coaches supporting Hatley are attack coach Girvan Dempsey, and lineout coach Luke Charteris. What Hatley learned with England has to be transferable, and the same is true with Dempsey from his time with Leinster, and Charteris, who brings international lineout pedigree and organisation from his time as a player running the Wales lineout.
Hatley has a lot of exciting players to work with who are also looking to make their mark, such as Beno Obano and Zach Mercer, and one I really like the look of is McConnochie.
Now that Tom Homer has gone back to London Irish I’m convinced more than ever that McConnochie could be a really good full-back. He has found already that the England back three of Watson, Jonny May and Elliot Daly is a pretty tough trio to break into, but given his ability McConnochie should still be pushing for international honours.
I don’t see any issue with McConnochie sharing the Bath full-back role, especially if Watson is away on international duty.
It’s challenging for everyone to understand a new club culture quiickly – it usually takes two to three years – but it’s not impossible and you can see the signs early on. One of them will be how quickly the pack pulls together, and another how quickly everyone gets off the ground and back into the defensive line after making tackles. It is part of a mindset of being the first to everything. It is part of a mindset where Bath players challenge themselves to become the fittest club in the league, and able to play in the way they choose.
The retirement of Springbok flanker François Louw is a big loss, but with Underhill and Faletau in the back row Bath are not short of options. Mercer is another gifted, talented, consistent back row forward who is a Test contender. However, he knows that if he’s going to get into the England side at No.8, he’s got the unenviable task of having to get past Billy Vunipola.
One of the other things to look forward to with the league restarting is the renewal of the rivalry between Bath and Bristol. There’s so much banter that goes on locally because there is just ten miles between them, with people from both cities working in the other, and families split between them.
The rivalry has re-emerged with Bristol back in the Premiership and in the box-seat at third in the table. It’s fantastic. When I played for Bath it was a bigger derby, just, than the one against Gloucester – although Kingsholm was the more intimidating ground.
I like what Bristol have done, and I like Pat Lam and the attitude he’s brought. Lam has put his mark on Bristol as head coach by getting his team on the same page and playing an exciting brand of rugby.
If Hatley can do that, by putting his own stamp on Bath and creating his own vision and giving the club its own style and identity, in the way Jack Rowell did for ten years when I was playing, then it could be special again.
However, first job for Hatley is making Bath a regular top four team.