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How Bath went from rock bottom to Premiership contenders

Sportspeople love to talk about “the talent in the building”, and it feels doubly apt on a visit to Farleigh House, the neo-Gothic mansion in the Somerset countryside where Bath have their training headquarters.

Just as you are negotiating the labyrinth of corridors and staircases, and contemplating a Cluedo-like transfer from the kitchen to the dining room via the library, you bump into Andy Robinson – a link with Bath’s glorious past, but also now a key member of the team hoping to brighten the present and future.

“Breakdown,” Robinson tells i in a simple answer to how Sale Sharks, who are Bath’s Premiership play-off semi-final opponents at The Rec this Saturday, won so well at Saracens two weeks ago. The 60-year-old former flanker and England head coach was brought back to the club he adores by boss Johann van Graan last summer to improve the contact skills of Bath’s first team, as well as to nurture the academy players. Robinson goes on to eulogise about Bath’s on-field leader in the breakdown, the England flanker Sam Underhill, a “quality individual” for his communication and ability on both sides of the ball.

There have always been nice touches at Farleigh: the trio of blue, black and white cushions on the sofas in reception; the club badge emblazoned on the baize of a pool table. But some wondered if the place came with a stink of atrophy around an underachieving team, and it has been shaken up since the arrival of Van Graan, the South African former coach of Munster, the Bulls and the Springboks’ forwards, in 2022, on the back of Bath finishing an unprecedented bottom of the Premiership, and only spared the drop to the Championship by a moratorium on relegation.

Van Graan has overhauled Bath’s staff and heads of department, including Lee Blackett in from Wasps via Scarlets as attack coach, Richard Blaze as forwards coach, JP Ferreira on defence, Steve Scott on the scrum, another Bath legend Jon Callard on kicking, Rob Burgess as head of recruitment, and Sarah Jenner as performance nutritionist.

The feel of Farleigh has been revamped with the banks of lockers in the middle of the players’ changing room shifted to the sides to make it open plan; a sauna and new showers and baths installed; the training pitch re-laid, and a wrestling dojo mat monitored by CCTV on the first floor of the gym, for intensive work on tackle and breakdown skills.

There are also video screens dotted round, giving what one player described as “subliminal messages” – everything from plays for the next match or traits in the opposition to a reminder of soft-tissue appointments available to book and a sports news ticker, Bath’s fixtures, the hours remaining to kick-off, the weather…

Always in the background since 2010 has been Bath’s owner Bruce Craig, pumping money in and with just one final – a loss to Saracens in the Premiership in 2015 – to show for it. Before and during Craig’s time, head coaches including Michael Foley, Steve Meehan, Ian McGeechan, Mike Ford, Gary Gold and Todd Blackadder have come and gone with a measly one European Challenge Cup in 2008 won since the glory days of the 1980s and 90s. Some have said Craig was a little too hands-on, previously, with one famous player allegedly signed before the head coach knew about it.

Van Graan, who lifted Bath to eighth place last season, when they finished with a run of bonus-point wins, had his contract extended to 2030 earlier this month.

“I can only speak with the highest praise about Bruce,” he tells i.

“He got me to come to Bath and I was looking for long-term success, and he’s been brilliant in backing that up. We speak whenever we need to – sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly. Bruce has got incredible balance.

“He’s obviously a very passionate rugby man and for anybody to give that amount of time and money into a club is incredible, really. I don’t think he always gets the credit that he deserves in terms of how he has supported Bath through all the years. I love my rugby chats with him, he’s very knowledgeable about the game and in the background he has done a lot for the game.”

BATH, ENGLAND - MAY 28: Joe Cokanasiga, Richard Blaze, Johann van Graan, Ruaridh McConnochie, Sam Underhill, Ollie Lawrence, Miles Reid and Finn Russell of Bath Rugby huddle together during a Bath Rugby training session at Farleigh House on May 28, 2024 in Bath, England. (Photo by Patrick Khachfe/Getty Images)
Bath finished their regular season in second level on points with Northampton Saints (Photo: Getty)

Bath’s 13th place out of 13 in the Premiership in 2022 was hallmarked by a 64-0 annihilation at Gloucester in April that year. The two clubs have swapped fortunes in the meantime, but it is difficult to judge precisely where Bath stand. This season, they have won 14 and lost nine of their 23 matches in the Premiership and Europe, with scorelines large and small, and big leads lost or clawed back.

Van Graan nevertheless insists the watchword for his team is “consistent”, pointing out they are the only team in the league to have been in the top four in all 18 rounds, and they gained at least one point from 17 of the matches. They have benefited from having three full teams in training to sharpen the first-choice 15.

“This group of players stayed in every single fight,” Van Graan says. “This is a 60-player effort.”

Steve Diamond, the Newcastle consultant coach, joshed recently about the true superstar of Bath being the accountant who fits everyone into the salary cap, and, in all seriousness, the signings under Van Graan have been spectacular, aided by but not limited to the collapse of Worcester and Wasps.

Any team would have been improved by Finn Russell and Ollie Lawrence in the midfield, and Thomas du Toit, Alfie Barbeary and Ted Hill in the pack, to name a few. Hot prospects Tyler Offiah and Kepu Tuipulotu have recently signed to the academy. Not that individual talent ever appeared to be the problem.

Style-wise, Van Graan places an onus on Ben Spencer, the captain, and Russell as an experienced half-back hinge, while prop Beno Obano is among those producing their most solid season for a while. Still there is a caution when Van Graan describes the “journey we are on”, as knockout rugby is unfamiliar to this team. They have a raucous 16th man in the generally sold-out Rec, and Van Graan speaks in awe of the noise generated by the crowd when the home tie was confirmed after the 43-12 win over a rotated Northampton a fortnight ago, as Bath finished second behind Saints on the same number of points.

“We started on the 11 July two seasons ago and we took it day by day,” Van Graan says.

“The number one thing was people to be themselves and starting with me and Ben and all the players and all the staff, everybody working incredibly hard and aligning all of our thoughts and all of our actions and repeating that for two seasons in a row. And the result is a home play-off game at The Rec.

“I’ve been long enough in rugby now that I know that anything can happen on the day. It’s a rugby ball, it can bounce with one decision, one kick, one bit of momentum from somebody. You are always dreaming, and we’re dreaming big dreams. But our focus is on Saturday afternoon and a semi-final is the next step to get to a final.”

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