Tuesday 11 December 2018

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Bath the epitome of Premiership's squeezed middle'

 

Under-fire Bath director of rugby Todd Blackadder. Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Under-fire Bath director of rugby Todd Blackadder. Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

The top two aside, nobody is safe from relegation in this year's English Premiership. Thirteen points separate Gloucester in third and Newcastle Falcons at the bottom, while everyone from sixth-placed Bath down is within four points of the trap-door after nine of the 22 regular-season games.

It is no wonder then that the thorny old issue of ring-fencing the top-flight has cropped up again this week as jittery owners consider the ramifications of dropping into the Championship.

Rosters

Relegation to the second tier costs around £2m, clears rosters of top talent and forces clubs to start again from the bottom.

It has happened to big clubs before; Northampton Saints and Harlequins have both bounced back from the Championship but it is considered a nightmare scenario in a league largely filled with clubs run by wealthy benefactors.

Making the Premiership a 13-team league with no relegation has quickly been taken off the table by the RFU who run the Championship and remain in favour of a fluid system, but the fear of going down is currently occupying the minds of 10 directors of rugby as they turn their attention to Europe this weekend.

Leinster are the only Irish province who face English opposition over the next fortnight and perhaps Bath are the best example of the problems the game is facing across the Irish Sea.

Girvan Dempsey. Photo by Bob Bradford - CameraSport via Getty Images
Girvan Dempsey. Photo by Bob Bradford - CameraSport via Getty Images

Millionaire owner Bruce Craig has ploughed fortunes into the traditional giants since taking over in 2010 and seen little on-pitch reward. Off the field, the club can boast the best training facilities around but continue to play at their traditional home.

The Rec may remain a picture postcard rugby stadium, but it is sadly no longer fit for purpose.

This week has seen the club launch fresh, ambitious plans to rebuild the old ground but they have gone down this road so many times before that the fans won't get their hopes up too much.

Right now, they are in sixth place with three wins from nine games in a division that, apart from leaders Saracens and their only true rivals Exeter Chiefs, is middling.

Once English rugby's dominant force, they have not won the Premiership since 1996 and have only registered one top-four finish in this decade.

Their owner was one of the proponents of the reconfiguration of European rugby, but his club have only played a bit part in the Champions Cup; running Leinster close in the 2015 quarter-final - back when Mike Ford was the coach.

The former Ireland defence coach replaced current USA supremo Gary Gold but was himself shown the door in 2016.

The club went south and recruited former All Black Todd Blackadder, who had been in charge of the Crusaders, as director of rugby.

His arrival was much heralded, but it has not gone particularly well and he is now fully aware that the club intend to replace him with former club captain Stuart Hooper in 2020. He is currently the club's 'general manager'.

Doldrums

Former Leinster assistant Girvan Dempsey was brought in to coach the club's attack this season.

Two of his colleagues, Toby Booth and Darren Edwards, will leave at the end of the year, but Dempsey this week moved to emphasise the fact that he is committed to the club in the long term.

It's no wonder that, amidst all of the excitement about the new stadium, the major issue being discussed in the local media is 'do the players know the team's game-plan?'

Blackadder was asked about that this week and said that there was issues around "clarity" and "alignment", curtly replying, when pressed, that "the boys have got to drive that".

On paper, the club have a formidable playing roster that features a smattering of England and Wales starters and Springbok Francois Louw.

Injuries haven't helped their performances, but their on-field issues were compounded by two incidents of players butchering tries, once in defeat to local rivals Bristol on the opening night of the season when Tom Homer spilled the ball over the line and a second time when Freddie Burns was famously dispossessed by Maxime Médard against Toulouse. Both losses could prove costly at the end of the season.

Leinster's opponents are far from alone in their plight. Their rivals from the good old days, Leicester Tigers, have got the stadium right but their on-field operation is sinking, with Geordan Murphy attempting to keep them afloat.

Last weekend's visit to Ashton Gate saw the former aristocrats beaten 41-10 by the new-money Bristol Bears with Pat Lam, Ian Madigan and a couple of All Blacks to their name.

Wasps are set to lose a host of star names at the end of the season as their bold move to Coventry looks less and less successful, while the Saints and Harlequins are both in the process of rebuilding under new coaches in their first seasons.

After a period in the doldrums, Munster's pool rivals Gloucester are on the up and the top two are excellently run in very different ways.

With BT Sports writing big cheques for the television rights and the league able to turn down a whopping offer from a private equity fund to retain control of its own affairs, there is no shortage of money in the game.

There are big names across the league, but so many clubs appear to lack a clear direction on the pitch.

Contrast that with the Leinster team that arrives in the West Country on Saturday, flush with international talent and enjoying a clarity of purpose from the top down.

Both of their coaches have Premiership experience and their model is not unlike the way English clubs are run, with Leo Cullen a de facto director of rugby - sharing the role with operations director Guy Easterby - and Stuart Lancaster the de facto head coach.

Just two points separate the clubs in Pool 1 and, for all that Bath are enduring a difficult campaign, there is no guarantee that Leinster will emerge from their visit to the old ground with a win.

"It is a really nice town, really kinda cramped changing-rooms to get changed in. It is a traditional type of rugby town I suppose, a hard place to go," Devin Toner said.

Leinster have made their name on going to hard places and performing.

Bath's name does not ring out the way it once did and their muddled approach means they look no closer to hitting the heights that saw them win this trophy in 1998.

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