Up and down the country Premiership and Championship sides are cranking their way back into action in preparation for September’s big kick-off while Toby Booth is on the outside looking in for the first time in 18 years.
“It’s actually been quite refreshing,” says Booth, one of England’s brightest rugby minds, who finds himself at a crossroads in his career after seven years at the Rec, preceded by over a decade at London Irish.
“Being in a first-team programme means you are pretty full-on but this has been an opportunity to take a bit of time out of what is always a hectic schedule, gather yourself and think about what you’re doing next and how you’re going to do it. To have time to invest in your own personal development has been good and I’ve been out and about, meeting lots of people.
“I had the discussion with Bath last year so leaving didn’t come as a surprise. They announced it in September and paid me the respect of telling me what their plan was, so that was fine. You can’t change it, you’ve just got to get on with it and there’s no hard feelings there. You look at yourself and I’m very grateful to Bath for giving me an opportunity to continue my coaching career. All that matters now is getting on to the next stage of that career and deciding what’s best.
“There were some options to get straight back into the game – a couple of clear-cut opportunities in rugby and one outside of the game. The timing is always important and from a family point of view there’s quite a lot been going on with where my daughter is in her GCSE cycle and my son going to secondary school. That impacted on the timing but we know where all that is now and I can plan accordingly, but it’s got to be a job I’m interested in and motivated to do.”
Pinned down on which direction he might see his career going, Booth, 49, adds: “It’s fair to say that I like a project. I’ve been at the top level with London Irish and Bath for a long periods so I’m not afraid of long-term projects and team building. I enjoy working with people and developing players above anything else and that will always be part of what I do. I’m always excited about boys maximising their talent and it’s great to see Tom Dunn, Charlie Ewels and so many other Bath boys making their mark and getting themselves into England’s World Cup training squad.
“At London Irish, Delon Armitage came through my academy, got his opportunity under Martin Johnson through injury and then went to a World Cup on the back of it. Once you’re in, you’ve got to take your opportunity and once you’ve proved you’re made of the right stuff on and off the pitch, it’s hard to get dislodged. Guys like Dunny and Charlie have got to grab their chances and I’ll get huge pleasure if they make it to Japan.
The essence of sport is winning, though, and one of Booth’s biggest regrets on leaving Bath is the failure to capture a trophy.
They came close, reaching a European Challenge Cup final in 2014 and the Premiership final a year later, only to be defeated twice by Northampton and Saracens respectively. If you think Bath have what it takes to prove people wrong next season check out www.sportsbetting24.in.
While Saracens have gone on to dominate at home and abroad, Bath have, infuriatingly in the eyes of their long-suffering fans, remained English rugby’s great underachievers.
“We got to three finals in all, including the Anglo-Welsh Cup in 2018, and you have to learn how to win,” sighs Booth. “There’s been a lot of transitional stuff in that time at Bath in terms of coaches, players and support staff, but there were times when we played some great rugby and it’s been difficult getting so close but not quite getting over the line. You learn a lot about people in those moments and what you need to be successful – and, more importantly, stay there.
“In the Premiership there are a few teams that are constantly up there (Saracens and Exeter) and a group of others, which Bath are in, trying to get there. You’ve got to battle for that consistency and there’s stuff that’s common to both the leading sides. It’s clear what the game looks like to them and everything follows from that – game plan, recruitment, development of players. They know exactly how they’re going about winning.
“We’ve had to manage quite a lot of transition at Bath over the last few years and the next regime (under new rugby director Stuart Hooper) is ready to add to that. Hopefully, though, we’ve left some good building blocks in place to become very successful.”
Booth’s point about transition at Bath is well made, for his seven-year tenure as assistant coach at the Rec saw him work under three directors of rugby – Gary Gold (2012-13), Mike Ford (2013-16) and Todd Blackadder (2016-2019) – while the list of senior assistant coaches to come and go includes Neal Hatley, who left for England but will return after the World Cup, and Tabai Matson. That contrasts sharply with Saracens and Exeter, where coaching turnover has been minimal.
“Saracens and Exeter are very comfortable in how they go about things and they’ve both got high-performing academies and high-performance teams,” says Booth. “People talk about winning and losing being habits but once you win you get reinforcement that what you’re doing is correct and you can add to that. In a positive way, you know what works and can develop skill-sets on that. The more you win, the more positive reinforcement you get and those two clubs have honed their set-ups to allow that to happen. That’s what makes them formidable teams and everything is aligned to that situation continuing over future years.”
That’s not to say Booth believes the top two are unbeatable. In fact, he insists the forthcoming World Cup season presents the best opportunity for the chasing pack to seize a Premiership title. He explained: “World Cup years often throw up a surprise in terms of someone getting off to a flyer and if you look back to 2011/12, Harlequins started well and won it. For sides like Saracens and Exeter, who will have a lot of guys missing with England for a good chunk of the season, it might make a difference and allow someone else to steal a march.
“If England go deep into the World Cup, as I think they might, the big games might almost become mundane for some of those players and there’s only so much emotion you can put into it over the course of a full season. Sometimes you can catch these big boys when they’re short of their best and that opens the door for a Gloucester, Northampton, Bath, Harlequins or Bristol.
“Gloucester are the model of consistency who’ve been putting out a very settled side and are likely to keep doing that. They won’t have too many international call-ups so they’ll look to kick-on and win that first Premiership title. Likewise, Northampton will look to cement their place in the top four and I expect Paul Gustard will have Harlequins very fired-up, again with few international distractions. It will be interesting to see which of these sides can make the big breakthrough.”
While England boss Eddie Jones has many detractors, Booth is not among them. He believes the garrulous Australian is on the cusp of something special. “Eddie’s got a brilliant track record of winning and, ultimately, he’s very clear in what the game looks like to him,” Booth says. “They’ll be a successful side, I’ve no doubt about that at all. World Cups are always fraught with danger, as England know better than anyone, but from where I’m standing they look a very well-oiled machine, very strong, very fit and physical, so they can win this World Cup, for sure.”
Having previously coached the England Saxons during his time at London Irish, helping them to Churchill Cup success in North America in 2008, Booth was once seen as an England coach of the future. His time at Twickenham may yet come but Booth says that coaching internationally overseas may yet provide an avenue for him as he plots the next step of his career.
He explained: “I had conversations around that earlier in my career and enjoyed the stuff I did in age grade rugby and the Saxons. It’s something I’d like to do and while people always want to talk about England – and coaching your own country is an amazing thing – the momentum around emerging nations, like in the USA with Major League Rugby and the growing number of franchises there, mean there are some exciting opportunities developing for coaches.
“Gary Gold’s a good friend of mine who’s doing a great job with USA, ditto Mike Friday with their 7s. They’re both excited about what’s going on there and, if it was right, I’d like to be in that sort of environment. If an opportunity came along in America or Canada – or maybe South Africa as well – and it was interesting, that would appeal to me. I’ve helped to produce a lot of academy players and turn them into internationals and that’s where I get most satisfaction.”
Booth will not be out of rugby for long, but for now he will watch on intently as his latest protégés battle for World Cup selection.
He added: “If you asked me to pick the players who’ve given me the most satisfaction over the years, I’d say Delon Armitage, Nick Kennedy, Charlie Ewels and, if he can make it to a World Cup now, Tom Dunn would fit that bracket as well. He’s had to do it the hard way but he’s in camp and has a chance. I just hope that he can take it.”
NEALE HARVEY / Photo: Getty Images
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