As he tackles the task of putting transitional Bath back on track to the top, former England scrum coach Neal Hatley has spoken emotionally of the crushing devastation still gnawing away inside him five weeks after the Red Rose’s World Cup final defeat to South Africa.
With a monumental opportunity lost, Hatley says he finds it hard to reconcile that defeat with the positive achievements that went before it, including the stunning 19-7 semi-final victory over New Zealand that put England within touching distance of rugby’s greatest prize.
Ex-prop Hatley, whose playing career spanned 17 years with London Irish and the Saxons, also played for Western Province and Natal Sharks in South Africa.
He told The Rugby Paper: “I feel unbelievably privileged, not just for the World Cup experience but my whole four years with that team. England was the country I was born in, I’m an extremely proud Englishman, so to be able to represent my country as a coach was fantastic.
“It didn’t feel like it for the first three or four weeks after the World Cup, though!
“When you look back at the series wins in Australia and Argentina, the record 18 wins, a Six Nations title and a lot of really good stuff we did, in a funny way the World Cup was the greatest experience of my life but it just felt like the last 48 hours were the worst of my life – it just felt like the world came crashing down for 48 hours after that loss.”
While nobody will know how differently things might have been had tighthead prop Kyle Sinckler not been knocked-out two minutes into the final, the crestfallen scrum guru admits he has spent hours soul-searching over where things might have gone wrong.
In hindsight, England supremo Eddie Jones claims he ought to have freshened things up and started Mako Vunipola and George Ford on the bench. Hatley is not minded to discuss individuals, but says: “I’m disappointed because I know how much work went in and how hard all our players worked, so to finish like that was very disappointing for everyone.
“A lot of people keep telling me we mustn’t forget New Zealand and I thought Australia was just as good. To beat Australia by 40 points in a quarter-final was exceptional, but the final takes a lot of the gloss off the good things before that.
“That’s the way I feel personally. It probably shouldn’t do but it does, but that’s just the way I’m built. I still feel that loss and ask myself what could I have done better? How could we have prepared the team better for that game? But that’s just the way I think as a coach.
“I’m sure at some point I’ll be able to look back and reflect on all our achievements with a lot of pride, but it’s a bit of a struggle at the moment.”
Hatley’s antidote is to throw himself into helping mastermind a revival at Bath alongside rookie director of rugby Stuart Hooper and a new-look coaching team. Does he feel a better coach now than when he left Bath for England in May 2016?
“It’s been a bit of a whirlwind re-introduction at Bath but I’m most definitely coming back into domestic rugby as a better coach,” Hatley, 49, replied. “The opportunity offered by England to work with guys like Eddie, Scott Wisemantel, Steve Borthwick and all the other people we had access to is something I’m incredibly grateful for.
“Eddie was big on us from a personal development perspective and exposed us to all kinds of personnel within rugby and from different fields as well. That was just unbelievable and I feel very fortunate to be in a better position as a coach.”
On his decision to quit England and return to Bath, Hatley explains: “I’d been nearly four years with England and although I had offers from different clubs, including South African franchises, the opportunity to return to Bath was very attractive.
“I coached Bath when Stuart Hooper was our captain and there’s a sense of unfinished business here after we built things up and reached the Premiership final in 2015, plus I wanted to apply what I’ve learnt in coaching for myself. I’m looking after our defence and the forwards now, with Mark Lilley and Luke Charteris assisting with scrum and lineout.
“Hoops is in his role for the first time while Mark, Luke and Ryan Davis are all first or second-year coaches and Girvan Dempsey is only in his second season here as attack coach, so I’ll have an opportunity to help lead a pretty young coaching group.
“It’s a much different squad now and we’re in a bit of transition after some experienced coaches left, but we’ve got a lot of players here with international ambitions and I’ve seen the progress guys like Charlie Ewels have made. I want all of our players to experience international rugby because being exposed to that will make them even better.”
Would Hatley fancy another crack at Test level one day? “I’d love to,” he says. “It’s a great job, something I loved and being at a full Twickenham belting out the national anthem, I get goose bumps now just thinking about it.
“I loved matchdays, loved working with that group of players and it’s very special to coach international rugby. Hopefully, I might have another chance with England or whoever, but at this point it’s right for me coaching at Bath.”