It's going to be hard to stop us
Mike Ross is hoping Leinster can expose cracks in Bath's level of confidence, writes Brendan Fanning
'This has been a more difficult season than we imagined it would be for a variety of reasons, but you can't just flick a switch and make everything right. Yes, we have goals and targets, but they're not specific in terms of winning this competition in this particular year. It's about achieving success within a certain number of years."
Clearly these comments are not coming from the Leinster camp, where the target is specifically to become the first Irish team to win three European titles, and the first team in Europe to win back-to-back trophies since Leicester in 2001 and 2002.
Rather, these are the words of Bath chief executive Nick Blofeld. Back in 1998, when Leinster had designs only on getting their act together, Bath were going to the south of France and beating Brive in the final in Bordeaux. It was a remarkable win because of the way the game unfolded -- Brive seemed to be coasting to what would have been successive titles -- but not in the context of Bath as a club. They had been one half of the duopoly that ruled English rugby as the game went open, so there was still an expectation of greatness about them.
Nowadays it's no more than a plan on the boardroom wall. For a while under Steve Meehan a couple of seasons ago they sometimes played exhilarating rugby, without it taking them anywhere they wanted to go. Then their moneyman arrived 18 months ago in the shape of millionaire businessman Bruce Craig, and when one of his first moves was to parachute Ian McGeechan in over his head coach, the next step was straightforward. Meehan moved on at the end of last season.
So far this term they aren't much closer to the kind of consistency that wins things. They'd win, they'd lose; they'd win, they'd lose again -- and in the last five games, between Premiership and Heineken Cup, they have won only once. And that victory, at home over Montpellier, was a game the French really should have won. Mentally, those Heineken points don't seem to have done Bath much good for they have lost their last two league games at the Rec, and when a team doesn't feel secure about defending their own patch, their supporters get nervous.
The addition of Lewis Moody to the injured list doesn't help. He was one of the first big signings of the Craig era, but injury has trailed him like an oil slick. So no sooner does he escape Camp England -- indeed giving up Test rugby altogether -- and all that entailed for him in a miserable World Cup, but he gets just three games under his belt for his club and now will be out for up to three months following a shoulder operation. His absence is tempered somewhat by the availability of new signing Francois Louw, who missed the home defeat to Sale last weekend because he was in South Africa at a wedding.
Mike Ross's memories of playing in the West Country are mixed. In his three seasons with Harlequins he would go there as an outside bet, waiting for Mad Danny Grewcock to come snarling through the middle of the Bath pack. In the progress of Ross as a tighthead and increasingly good all-round player, that feels like a long time ago. So surely now is a good time to be going to Bath, when the dog is gone out of them, or at least it's unsure about whether it can bark or bite?
"It's a bit of both," he says. "They're desperate to win so there's that extra bit of edge and intensity to affairs, but at the same time if you get on top of them then, you know, because their confidence might be a bit down or whatever, they could start to crack and fold or asking questions of themselves. It's a two-edged sword: it could work for them and it can work against them. At the same time, it's Heineken Cup week. Premiership form is pretty much irrelevant. It's a fresh competition, a fresh slate and there's always an extra rise in intensity in Heineken Cup matches."
There won't be much of that around the Rec by the time Glasgow come in January if Bath lose today, for defeat would spell the end in a pool where Leinster are already in control. Unable to cope with Ulster home or away last season -- and compared to now they had a stronger outfit on duty for the home leg in those back-to-back ties -- you'd wonder how they'll cope with Leinster. They have had many uncomfortable moments in the front five already this season. Ross will be mindful that suddenly Bath don't get it right at the scrum.
"Teams do their homework on you," he says. "If you have a poor scrum in one game you can be sure they will be examining that and trying to figure out why it happened and then trying to recreate the situation. You have to look after your own job, make sure that your own house is in order and not to be worrying too much about the opposition because we've a firm belief that if we execute our game plan well then it doesn't really matter what the opposition do. If we're strong and straight and have all our own things squared away, you limit to a certain extent the trouble that you can get into.
"I don't want last season to be a blip. Last season was absolutely great but as Joe's really keen to ram home, we're not champions this year. It's in the past; it's done and dusted. It's great; it's nice but now we're just another contender like every other team in the competition." Well, yes, except that some contenders have a bit more about them than others. Along with Toulouse, Leinster are the leaders of this group, despite the absence of Brian O'Driscoll. And indeed that gap left by the Ireland captain best illustrates where they are at, with three players -- Eoin O'Malley, Fergus McFadden and Luke Fitzgerald -- equipped for the position. McFadden's start there is good for Leinster, and Ireland.
"This is the elite competition and we're playing against the holders," says Bath assistant coach Brad Davis. "If you put something sub-standard on the field against opponents as good as them, you don't expect to take anything from the match."
That leaves the home team with no margin for error. Indeed without a decent start it's a game that could get away from them so fast that they wouldn't know how to start chasing it. The first quarter then will be instructive about the champions' attitude. And in that regard it will be interesting to see what sort of case Damian Browne can make for himself in the second row. This is already bonus territory for a man who in a previous lifetime was a regular with Saints, only to fall off the face of the earth. While we are waiting for the recruitment of Stephen Sykes to pay off, Browne has another chance to increase his value.
"We always have to be wary of the dangers of going away to places, especially this early in the season," says Ross. "It's good though because you have confidence as a team, because you've been there and done that. Often teams that know how to win, win, even when they're not playing particularly well. That does help, but at the same time the favourites' tag hasn't always sat easily with a lot of Irish teams. We have to overcome that and do ourselves justice really. If we play as well as we can then it's going to be very hard to stop us."
Bath v Leinster
Sky Sports 2, 12.45
Sunday Indo Sport