Bath have flattered to deceive for many a season now. When the sun is shining at the Rec and their backs have got the ball going through the hands, they have looked great, but on cold, wet Friday nights away from home they have looked disinterested.
Last season they lost early on at both sets of Exiles – Welsh and Irish – which immediately would have dented confidence and marked them out as a team that could not string wins together consistently.
That is what makes their opening round defeat of the Newcastle Falcons – at Kingston Park, in the exact conditions described above – so special. Not only did they grind out a win, they dominated the Falcons from start to finish, playing the conditions perfectly to not even allow their hosts a point. It was a ruthless performance.
Next came the small matter of the champions, and traditional rivals, Leicester Tigers at home. In completely different conditions they came away with another impressive win. The Tigers may have been decimated by injury, but the way they rallied in the second half, and some of the rugby they played, showed how good a side they still are. It was a quality team that Bath dispatched from the Rec last weekend.
This must all be taken with a pinch of salt. Last season they also won their first two games of the season – one away, one home – and went on to finish a disappointing seventh. So what makes the beginning of this season any more encouraging for Bath fans? It is the manner of these victories. Last season they snuck by Worcester by a point, this season they nilled the Falcons. Last season, they then beat another mid-table team, Wasps, by seven points at home – this time round, they did just that to the champions.
You just get the feeling that everything has been taken up a notch this year. Gary Gold, Toby Booth and Mike Ford are not messing around – they are out to create a team that can challenge for the title.
In my pre-season predictions I agreed with them to a certain extent – that Bath would be the team to challenge the top four this year. And when you consider their squad there is really no reason why that shouldn’t be true. The pack has been a source of such frustration over the past few seasons, defined by powder-puff performances against the bigger units. Last weekend they tore into the vaunted Leicester outfit – albeit missing several of their bigger names – with a tenacity and ferocity missing from years gone by.
Davey Wilson – despite his white boots – has come on leaps and bounds in the past year or so, and his performances for England over the summer prove they finally have a viable alternative to Dan Cole. Rob Webber, after such a tragically injury-ravaged campaign last year, is rediscovering the form that saw him win a big move to the club, while Paul James is experienced enough to trouble most tightheads. The reserve unit of Perinise, Batty and Catt, that has been coming on around the 50 minute mark, has showed no sign of weakness either.
The engine room can look a little lightweight, but if Dave Atwood finally matures into the player he promised to be they will have a lock with aggression and talent in equal measures. The backrow is where they have made their shrewdest acquisitions. Matt Garvey is exactly the type of unfashionable, nuggety forward they have so lacked. Along with Leroy Houston, who is carrying workhorse, and the returning François Louw, they have one of the best units in the league.
At half-back Peter Stringer and George Ford compliment each other perfectly – one full of nous and experience, the other with youthful abandon and brilliant vision. Ford has been especially impressive so far with a composure and control that he failed to show at Leicester. If they get it right, a potential centre partnership of Kyle Eastmond and Jonathan Joseph is devilishly exciting, although the latter needs to rediscover his form of old after a quiet season last year.
Finally, the strength of their back three is summed up by Tom Biggs, one of the league’s most lethal finishers, currently having to bide his time in the A League. He is behind Semesa Rokodoguni and Matt Banahan – both so dangerous in completely different ways – in the pecking order, with Horacio Agulla to return as well. Anthony Watson looks to have an unsettling amount of potential and also seems to want to play the game in the same way Nick Abendanon does – he will learn a lot from a man oft foolishly overlooked by England.
Of course, it is much too early in the season to be making sweeping assumptions about any team, but you just get the sense that this Bath side is not the same one that has so frustrated fans over the past few seasons. There is a newly-discovered grit and determination about them, to go with an impressive strength in depth and a desire to play proper, running rugby.
They travel to face Saracens at Allianz Park next – a game few would expect them to win – but a bonus point is far from out of the question. That would certainly herald a huge amount of progress, because to achieve it would mean keeping up with Sarries’ astonishingly powerful pack. If they can manage that, it could certainly be a sign that the perennial underachievers from the West Country have well and truly turned a corner. Watch this space.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images