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Q&A: Todd Blackadder goes on the record about his time at Bath

Todd Blackadder

Outgoing Bath rugby director Todd Blackadder reflects on three mixed years at the Rec and offers NEALE HARVEY a candid assessment of the state of English rugby before the former All Blacks flanker takes up a two-year assignment with Japanese side Toshiba.

If you had to mark your three years at Bath out of ten, what would you award yourself?

It would be a bit like our season just finished – good but not quite great! You want to be in a position where you’re fighting for silverware. When I look at the first season, we were fighting for top four and the Challenge Cup, but then we went into the Champions Cup and that had a massive impact with the extra intensity and all the injuries we had. This year was one of missed opportunities. The team had lots of chances to really establish themselves so we were really disappointed at the end, but the feeling is this is still a young team with a lot of fight left in it.

A 6.5 out of ten, then?

Yes, something like that. I’m not satisfied, put it that way.

You achieved three top six finishes, but is no silverware a big regret?

A huge one. We had opportunities to be contenders and missing out on a losing bonus point at Newcastle hurt us. When you look at opportunities the boys blew during the season – dropped balls against Toulouse, turning our backs at Northampton – there’s enough to have secured a top four spot and done better in Europe.

What positive legacies do you leave?

There’s a massive amount. We’ve developed a really good performance culture and you could see in our last game at Leicester that the squad has grown along the way. Character-wise, the team is set to do really well and they’ve got the right personnel.

With the missed opportunities this year, the boys well and truly got their noses rubbed in it but you’ve got to go through that if you want to become a ruthless team. At times we were ruthless, at others we weren’t, but there’s a great opportunity now for boys to step up because the margins in these competitions are so narrow. I hope Bath do really well now.

Feel strange to be leaving?

Very surreal. It’s gone so fast. You don’t realise when you’re fully immersed in it just how all-consuming it is.

Is English rugby more intense than you’d imagined?

No, but it’s not just about coaching in the Premiership, is it? It’s Champions Cup, Premiership Cup, Premiership Shield and all the other things you’ve got to contend with. It just never stops.

Sounds like you think the season needs restructuring?

If anything, I’d try and get blocks in place so the Premiership wasn’t so ‘bitsy’. Champions Cup will always be structured the way it is and that’s a good format, but other games like the Premiership Cup and Premiership Shield are things that should take a back seat to ensure that the Premiership is more cohesive.

Sometimes you can play one league game in the middle of Champions Cup games and it’s so stop-start. Next season you’ll start with four rounds of Premiership Cup and then the semi-finals are not until round 16, so it’s all over the shop. You’re just juggling balls all the time and there’s so much to consider – too much really.

Pile up: Bath taste Champions Cup heartache amidst packed schedule. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images

Should the Premiership Cup and Premiership Shield be scrapped with more player development through lower league clubs?

This is part of the strand which is a bit confusing because not long ago the Premiership clubs were talking about taking over player development and playing more A-League games and everyone was gearing up for that. But now it sounds like the opposite is happening and people want more teams in the Premiership and those other competitions scrapped.

I think the RFU need to take the lead on where they see the development pathways being.

Is the New Zealand system better?

If you look at New Zealand rugby, the competitions are cleaner and club rugby still plays a huge part in player development. Super Rugby players still play club rugby whereas here, apart from a bit of dual-registration, our players at Bath don’t play any club rugby. All the development in New Zealand still sits at grassroots level which is easier to manage.

Here it’s very confusing with all the different competitions and what it does is stretch your resources all the time. You don’t get a lot of time to do personal development for yourself or your coaches – there’s just no breather.

How much additional pressure on squads comes from the salary cap?

It’s interesting to see where everyone’s at with that. I know Saracens are under the gun but the pressure is on all over and it’s constant. You look at the salary cap and it pressures you to the extreme because some guys are in contract and you’re still having to release them. There are always ways of navigating it rather than everything being really clean, simple and on the books and that’s one thing that is definitely different from a central contracting model. Wages are going up – this year it was 16 per cent – and yet the cap stays the same, so it means we’re spending more on top players while more are leaving. It doesn’t make any sense.

Does that not mean younger players get more chances?

I guess one of the evolutions of the pressure everyone’s under is you’ve got to spend more time developing young guys from the academy because you can’t just keep on buying players. As long as it’s sustainable it’s far cheaper to develop your own.

Which players who’ve come through during your three years have given you the most satisfaction?

Tom Dunn, Beno Obano, Elliott Stooke, Charlie Ewels, Tom Ellis and Zach Mercer are amongst the quality younger lads to put their hands up. When I look at teams like Exeter and Saracens, they’re full of seasoned campaigners who’ve been there for a while whereas at Bath we’re still one or two seasons from being at our very best. It’s a matter of keeping these guys together now, it’s the only way you can build. People talk about learning from losing and you’ve got to keep that group together in order to be able to do that, otherwise all you do is keep starting again each year.

Void: Head coach Tabai Matson, now with the Chiefs, left Bath in 2017. Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images

If you had your time again, anything you’d have done differently?

When Tabai Matson left in 2017 we should have filled that head coach role immediately because it created a big void. We had Darren Edwards and Toby Booth but with four competitions and all the stresses that go with that, not having that extra coach to take a lot of the pressure off and continue to develop our coaching and attacking plan meant we were probably overworked. We didn’t deliver a quality product. We still qualified for Europe in 2017/18 but it wasn’t good enough and when Girvan Dempsey came in last year it felt like we were readdressing that void.

How will Stuart Hooper fare as your replacement?

There’ll be a lot of doubters and it’s a massive piece of work for him as DoR, but he’s got Neal Hatley coming in, Girvan’s going to build on the work he’s done and I think they’ll go really well. The main thing is they’ve got a really good squad and Hoops has a really good relationship with the club, so he should succeed.

Interesting seeing Luke Charteris step up as a coach as well?

It’ll be good for him after stepping away from playing. The big thing he does is drive the lineouts. Our lineout defence was one of the best in the competition and our lineout attack and driving mauls have been a pretty potent weapon. He’ll do a great job.

With everything set fair at Bath, why head to Japan now?

It was too good an opportunity to turn down and Bath need to move on. You have your time and sometimes a fresh voice can make a difference.

Presumably they pay well in Japan?

The money’s not important, I’m looking at this as a real development opportunity for myself and Japan could be really good for me. I just see this as a chance to learn, grow and see things from different perspectives. Once I’ve done my two years in Japan I want to then get a team where I can put things together and take it through five years, trying to consolidate all my experience to put together a quality team and club that’s got a clear vision.

Back here in England potentially?

I’m open to what part of the world that may be in, it could be anywhere.

On to England, what do you think of the job Eddie Jones is doing?

He’s done a good job because he’s come in, rattled a few cages and tried things. He knows what works and what doesn’t and if England can hit the World Cup fully loaded and injury-free, they can beat anyone, New Zealand included. The big challenge in these tournaments is how they can get stronger the longer it goes on.

Which Bath players do you believe have a shot at the World Cup?

Joe Cokanasiga’s got so much upside that I think he might go, although Ruaridh McConnochie’s emerging as a bit of a dark horse. Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson can certainly push themselves in and I thought Charlie Ewels, over the second half of the season, played the bloody house down. There are a lot on the fringe and that’s why I believe Bath’s best seasons are ahead of them. Mercer, Ellis and Dunn are still a bit inexperienced but they are close to coming into their prime.

Can anybody really stop New Zealand completing a World Cup hat-trick?

New Zealand’s depth is incredible and in their pursuit of excellence they just keep getting better and better. They’ve been tested by Ireland, South Africa and England but every time they lose a game it just makes them more determined. They’ll be very hard to beat in Japan.

Team to beat: New Zealand centre Ngani Laumape is on a hot streak with Super Rugby side Hurricanes. Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Do England have any chance?

I think they do but injuries could have a massive impact if they lose a couple of key players. It also comes down to whether they can play an attacking, ball in hand game rather than just relying on kicking because conditions there will be good. If they want to win the World Cup, they’ll have to play a bit of rugby because other teams won’t die wondering.

You’ve had some involvement at Avonvale Rugby Club. At a time when grassroots rugby is under pressure, how important is it for the RFU to nurture our lower league sides?

Participation is a huge part of grassroots rugby and you’re not going to get professional players unless you attract girls and boys on a Saturday or Sunday. You’ve got to have that or the game’s going to die. There’s an obligation on the RFU and these grassroots clubs to make sure they’re producing a well-coached, good standard of rugby at whatever level they’re at. Ultimately, you’d like your professionals involved in those clubs as well.

Would you like to see a facility for Bath’s professionals to still turn out occasionally for their former junior clubs, or junior clubs locally?

Yes. It’s feast or famine at times, there’s too much rugby for some guys and not enough for others. You need guys to play so it would be great to be able to release some to play lower level stuff; it’s still a game of rugby and it would be great for them to remember their roots and give something back. Super Rugby players in New Zealand go back and play for their clubs when they’re not selected and it would be such a positive move, rather than always trying to organise development games when you’re struggling for numbers to get a side out. It’s something the RFU should consider, it would reinforce the relationship between grassroots rugby and the professional clubs.

Are you concerned about the increasing number of Kiwis heading north?

It depends on a guy’s motivation. When you weigh things up, it can’t just be about the money. Guys need to go to a club to enhance it in the knowledge that you’re also learning and gaining a different perspective. Money’s not enough, you have to have a purpose and it’s up to the clubs to ensure guys come for the right reasons.

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