The novelty is still here, which is important from an enthusiasm and energy point of view, and it’s been fantastic. The first year was all about assessing what you’ve got and we made further progress last season, so it’s an exciting time to move forward again. We’re trying to identify a Bath style and a Bath way of winning and, hopefully, having a competitive team playing a brand of rugby that people want to watch helps on the supporter side of things.
Can you define the ‘Bath style’?
The best way to describe it from our point of view is to be as positive as you can be while being adaptable to what’s going on around you. Ideally, you’d love to play with ball in hand all the time, but we’ve also got to be smart about it. You can’t be one-trick ponies.
What have you learned about Bath, the place as well as the club?
That there’s a massive historical connotation that comes with it, which is fantastic, and one of the reasons for coming here was to be involved with a city club, which I’d not experienced before, along with the pressures that go with that. The way everyone here gets behind the club is brilliant and the ambition of the club is evident from top to bottom, starting with Bruce Craig. The expectancy is always there among the supporter base but there’s a bit more realism involved now. People keep talking about the ‘good old days’ but they were a long time ago and we need to make sure that we’re making our own forward progress now. I think people can see we are.
Does that pressure and expectancy of winning silverware not just weigh you down though?
Believe me, the pressure and expectancy from supporters will not be any greater than the pressure we put on ourselves. We want to be as good as we can be everyday so in that respect it doesn’t weigh on us at all. The only thing is making sure people are aware of what is current and what is in the distant past. That’s probably the only thing we have to remind people of on occasions because you’ve only got to look at rugby as an entity now and how competitive it is across the board. People at all clubs are trying to match every element of what others do in terms of their programmes, coaching, quality of squad, money, grounds and facilities, and then better it!
Last season you finished fifth in the Premiership – your reflections as a coaching team?
You look at what might have been, of course, and where we could have got that one extra point from to reach the play-offs. That ultimately sets the first part of any review and you look at what you could have improved upon or done slightly differently to make sure you didn’t fall out of the top four on the final day. It’s a pretty sore process but it also galvanises you and gives you the ambition and intensity to move forward.
You lost the Amlin Cup final and in the LV= Cup semi-final as well – did it feel like failure?
I certainly wouldn’t describe the season as a failure, but it was a bitterly disappointing experience. It wasn’t on one game or another, though, there were various elements that were in our control at difficult parts of the season and other parts that were not. For example, Matt Garvey’s injury came at a really poor time for him and the team, so you need that rub of the green and we missed out at the end of the Premiership season by the narrowest of margins.
What pleased you last season and, conversely, where must you improve?
We massively developed our attacking side of the game from where we were the year before. We improved our try-scoring, number of line-breaks made and became much more of an attacking threat while maintaining the defensive side of things. Both were built on solid foundations of the set-piece and we had a good driving game, scrum and lineouts. It’s not rocket science that if you have good foundations in place you’ll give yourself the best chance, but what we need to do this year is challenge ourselves to execute better inside the opposition half. We’re creating lots of promising situations and although we massively improved there, we left quite a few try-scoring chances out there. We scored three tries on five occasions in the league, missing out on bonus points each time, and one point ultimately made the difference between being in the top four and not. Every coach will talk about how important being more clinical is but we’ve got good attacking players and the more we practise in pressurised environments, the more clinical we’ll be to give ourselves the best chance of winning.
Would you accept Northampton and Saracens were the best two teams last season?
Yes. The table doesn’t lie and the best teams find a way. Those two teams found consistency throughout the season and all credit to them, but that’s what spurs us all on now. They are like the role models of the Premiership in terms of achievement and whilst everyone else will want to do things in their own way, they’re the sides people are trying to emulate. They’ll enjoy different expectations now and when the season kicks off everyone will be trying to catch and get past them.
You’ve kept new signings to a minimum – who’s impressed you?
It’s early days but full-back Luke Arscott has been very good. He’s trained exceptionally well and is very experienced having been around the traps a bit, so we’re really pleased with how he’s settled in now that Nick Abendanon has gone. All our new signings are settling in well and it’s also good to see a few home-grown academy boys like Ollie Devoto and Chris Cook coming through strongly, which means you have less necessity to buy players in all the time. That’s a sign of a club helping to sustain itself and is the challenge going forward.
You have signed three props, though, in Henry Thomas, Nick Auterac and Grant Shiells – seems to be a trend amongst Premiership clubs this summer?
You’ve got to have strength-in-depth in your front row now and the attrition rates in the league show that. You’ve got to be able to sustain output, for want of a better phrase, and keep people fresh throughout the season. That also generates competition for places and makes people want to push themselves.
How excited are you by the imminent arrival of Sam Burgess?
South Sydney are likely to be involved in the NRL play-offs so we won’t see him for a while yet, but we’re keeping a very close eye on him and there’s been a lot of communication with him. He’s very keen to get to know Rugby Union quickly so we’ve been sending stuff to him to study and are trying to ensure the adjustment is as seamless as possible. Positionally, we’ll have to wait and see, but he’ll need to get used to contestable rucks first.
A management re-jig at Bath sees head coach Mike Ford now reporting directly to owner and executive chairman Bruce Craig – has there been any discernible difference?
It’s early days but there’s been no change from our point of view, it’s been business as usual. I’m sure Bruce will be around, like he always is, and although there has been a change it’s more on the non-rugby side of things.
Bruce is known to be very ‘hands-on’, so does that not add to the pressure we spoke about earlier?
No, he’s been great. Bruce doesn’t add to the pressure at all. When you talk about the ambition and desire of people here, he epitomises that. He’s very much around the place and cares hugely about the team and his club, but that’s exactly what we all aspire to being and the man at the top leads the way. Why wouldn’t Bruce be interested in what’s going on? With all the money he’s put in and the facilities he’s created, why wouldn’t you become emotionally attached. I would much rather have someone like that than people who don’t care, so Bruce’s input is all positive.
Pleased with George Ford’s fly-half contribution last season and do you expect him to progress?
Of course. He’s broken into that England set-up now, which is fantastic for him because he has huge aspirations and is an unbelievable talent with an unbelievably good attitude. He epitomises what you want in a professional environment and what we want at Bath. George wants to get better each day, comes in with a fantastic attitude and work ethic and I see no reason why he shouldn’t continue to progress. He’s probably played more rugby in one season at Bath than he did in all his others combined, which is why he came here and he wants to test himself against the best. He knows he still has work to do but he’s one of the first on the training field, is usually the last off and he’s doing everything he can to kick on again.
The likes of Danny Cipriani and Freddie Burns threw down an England challenge in June – how will George respond to that?
It’ll push him just as much as it will push everyone else forward. We talk about internal pressure for places at club level and it’s no different at Test level. You want competition for places and for the person in form to get the nod.
How did your six England boys scrub up after the summer tour?
They’re all healthy and looking to kick on again at Bath. Opportunities will continue for them as long as we’re successful and we’ve got other boys knocking on the door. If I was going to give an award for the person who’s had the biggest impact in our training so far, though, it would go to Jonathan Joseph – he’s been outstanding. I’ve got a big history with him from my days at London Irish but I’m not just talking about him as a player, his impact on the group in pre-season has been unbelievable.
Can Jonathan Joseph be England’s answer at No.13 then?
Just look at his performance against Northampton in the Amlin Cup final. He’s certainly not finished from an international point of view, he really wants to kick on and he’s doing everything he can to force his way on to that England agenda. England’s coaches know what they want from their midfielders but all ‘JJ’ can do is keep pushing and if he can translate his training performances into games, he’ll be doing well and could be in for a very big season.
You’ve always rated Joseph – what are his main attributes and what does he need to prove?
For starters, he’s got that natural No.13 outside break along with exceptional footwork for beating a defender. But while everyone talks about his attacking talent and how he’s naturally quick, if you look at his performance in the Challenge Cup final he was unbelievable defensively as well. He made a big tackle, then got up and turned the ball over for Anthony Watson’s try and that’s a side England want to see from him. Physically, he needs to show that he can live with the defensive side as well as attack. He’s a great talker with good game-management skills, so it’s just a question of where England see him fitting in.
Who else at Bath can push for England places?
Anthony Watson played very well for England in the midweek game against the Crusaders, so he along with Luke Arscott will be interesting. And if you look at the firepower we’re trying to put together behind the scrum from a counter-attacking point of view, those two, along with JJ, Ollie Devoto and Kyle Eastmond, will be massively important. They’re young and English for a reason because we want people to be able to contribute to Bath for a long time and contribute to England internationally as well.
Can lock-cum-flanker Matt Garvey force his way into the England mix?
I don’t see why not because Garvs was unbelievable for us before he got injured towards the end of the season. Carl Fearns gave us real impact at No.8 as well, so with the competition we have, both those guys could throw their hat in the ring. I’m just delighted that we’ve got a competitive squad which is pushing people to improve.
You spoke about the attritional nature of the Premiership – how has it changed over your 10-11 years involved?
It certainly doesn’t get any less attritional! The season is a massive marathon now and half the battle is keeping your squad fresh and motivated, as well as being tactically astute. Over time people have shown greater innovation towards strength and conditioning and the size of their squads, which is always difficult around the wage cap and the limitations there and involves real effort, attention and management. The style of play hasn’t changed much in relation to the Northern Hemisphere and it’s still very much set-piece based because of the conditions we play in, but the off-field player management stuff has changed enormously and it’s the people who are the most efficient and clinical who end up at the top.
How much do Grade A training facilities such as yours at Farleigh House play a part in the modern game?
It’s such an important thing for recruitment and it makes a real difference. It has a massive impact on players and gives them the ‘wow’ factor that helps in today’s market. The scientific aspect has also increased and we’ve now got GPS, other monitoring systems and blood screening that help you maintain a level of output whilst preventing people from over-training and running themselves into the ground. Great facilities and anything that helps to prepare players for the massive physical and emotional effort it takes to play in the Premiership are to be applauded.
Finally, the pay-off line, can Bath claim long-awaited silverware this season?
(Laughs) Bottom line is we’ve got to perform well and if we do, we’ve got a chance. We want to be competitive and why not?
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