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Guscott column: Blackadder must beef up front five

By Jeremy Guscott

TODD Blackadder has some big questions to answer at Bath after their stuttering performance against Scarlets compounded their recent inconsistency and put a massive dent in their chances of qualifying for the knock-out stages.

The Scarlets game was almost a re-run of the Wasps match at the Rec a couple of weeks ago in that Bath faced a side with tremendous attacking ability and failed to shut them down adequately. To do that they needed amazing line speed coupled with few unforced errors and a low penalty count.

Against Scarlets they weren’t terrible in those areas,  but there were enough of those elements not functioning properly that allowed Scarlets the space and time to do what they did. At times it was stunning, in particular the Tadgh Beirne score, which was exceptional.

When Bath analyse the video they will ask where was the chase, where was the defence? But it was a good opportunity well taken by Scarlets. Watching that match I saw a side comfortable in the style they were playing. That was a team that also had injuries and a late reshuffle after Leigh Halfpenny failed a fitness test, yet they still played in the same way and were all in sync playing wonderful rugby.

It was in stark contrast to Bath.

Yes, they have had a lot of injuries but that’s no excuse – all players in the squad should be adaptable and the team should be able to play the same way.

I applaud Blackadder for his honesty in describing a couple of Bath performances as ‘crap’ – he’s not wrong. Sometimes inconsistency can be down to poor preparation, but in his eyes the preparation has been good; they’ve been well-drilled and have done all the necessary analysis in the week leading to a game but then an element goes missing on the field.

He suggests it’s something mental and it’s hard to disagree with that. It has to be rectified and that’s what he’s paid to do – to find solutions and pick the best possible team and get the result. And if he thinks he doesn’t have the right personnel, it’s up to him to change it.

Bath look quite ponderous in attack and are reminiscent of an old English team where the side need to get in a certain place to enable them to play their game. Contrast that to a Scarlets side that will run the ball from inside their own 22. Bath as yet haven’t shown any signs that, as a team, they can play off the cuff.

It’s frustrating. I’ve seen games where Anthony Watson – who is playing the best rugby of his life – has been absolutely stunning and others such as Beno Obano, Tom Dunn, Taulupe Faletau and Rokoduguni all flying but the rest play indifferent, inconsistent rugby.

Usually inconsistency can be down to chopping and changing men in key positions but the 9-10 axis has remained the same in the large part with Chris Cook and Rhys Priestland in situ. Cook seems to be the favourite at No.9 because his box-kicking is seen to be superior to Kahn Fotuali’i but I don’t see any other part of his game that is.

Blackadder has gone most of the time with Priestland over Freddie Burns, and while Rhys started the season in good nick his performances have dipped. Another big player for Bath, Jonathan Joseph, has been in and out and they struggle to score tries without Semesa Rokoduguni in the side.

Bath have scored 36 tries in the Premiership. Saracens lead the way on 48, but even sides who are playing poorly like Northampton have scored 40, Quins 44. Another out-of-sorts side, Leicester,  have scored 33.

One of the main problems is the Bath pack is nowhere near the level it was when they got to the Premiership final in 2014-15, when the front five were interchangeable.

Blackadder must change his front five dynamic if their aspiration is to win big trophies.

The question is, who can get the best out of this squad? It hasn’t been answered yet and Blackadder must ask some serious questions of his forwards coach. Defence, too, with Bath having conceded 41 tries compared to the league’s best 27 at Chiefs and 28 Saracens.

Bath appear to have a very basic game plan that they’re not executing well. They have one of the lowest ball in play averages, telling you they prefer territory rather than possession. That in turn tells us they don’t believe they have enough explosive ball carriers to damage defences through lots of phases like an Exeter do.

The difference in carries and yards made by Scarlets forwards compared to Bath was striking. So many of the Scarlets ran hard onto the ball whereas Bath were less dynamic.

Blackadder has it in his hands and while he has to select the team each week he has to make sure he has his backroom staff right as well.

Bath have enough talent in Watson, Rokoduguni, Joseph, Priestland, Burns, Fotuali’i, Faletau, Francois Louw, Charlie Ewels, Obano, Dunn to build a decent team.

But the bubble in Bath is more often flat than fizzy and it needs a shake up. It’s been a frustrating period for the fans and it’s up to Blackadder to find the stardust.

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