Are Bath the real deal this season?

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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 Fran├žois 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.

watsonFinally, 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

8 thoughts on “Are Bath the real deal this season?

  1. Not sure I would describe it as a lightweight second row. Matt Garvey is also a massive man and can add grunt to the second row if they need it, Fearns is also a beast of a man still to come back. It’s a really formidable set of forwards and a great mixture of gas, skill and power in the backs.

    With so many new faces I didn’t expect them to gel so well at the start of the season, now my money is on them pushing Quins out of the top 4.

  2. I think it is only a few years ago that Bath won the Heinekin Cup and they have slipped since then. Nice to see them having a good start . A good Bath team will give the likes of Saracens,Quins , Saints, plus of course the Tigers plenty to think about!

  3. Bath have always had good backs, Butch James and Stephen Donald (sometimes) at 10, Claassens was outstanding, Olly Barkley, Abendanon, Banahan, Shontayne Hape etc. However it is the pack where they have struggled recently. A few years ago their front row was Flatman, Mears and Bell who are good, but James, Webber and Wilson are all true international quality. Dave Attwood is pushing Parling very hard for the England 5 shirt based on his performances for the last 9 months. I think that whilst he lacks the expertise at the lineout that Parling has, he is a better ball carrier and a monster of a man with his added bulk. It is encouraging that despite their fine start to the season, their best player is still missing, Francois Louw. He is the best forward in the AP in my opinion. Capable of playing 6 or 7, and can lead the pack to being a real dominant force to give Ford the platform to release the exciting backs. My prediction is 3rd/4th this year.

  4. Firstly I feel hurt that Wasps have been dismissed as a mid-table team! I’m sure top 4 is possible for us!

    On a serious note, Bath are a good side but I think they lack something. They are strong across the board but they are all decent players, not great players. How many of their squad have a serious chance of starting an international match anytime soon? Louw? Is that it or am I missing someone?

    Don’t get me wrong, they are a better side than last year, but I think top 4 will be out of their reach.

    1. I was referring more to last season when I said mid-table team! That said, I don’t think you’ll do that much better this season.

      Think you’re being pretty harsh on Bath international-wise as well. They’ve currently got Guinazu and Agulla away with Argentina, Wilson, Webber and Eastmond all in England squad, Paul James in Wales squad, Louw for South Africa… Of those I’d say the two Argies, Wilson, Eastmond, James and Louw all have a good chance of starting internationals this year. Then you’ve got fringe/Saxons-style players like Ford, Joseph, Biggs, Banahan etc.

      There’s plenty of depth there across the board. I genuinely think they’ll make top 4 this year, especially with the way injuries are going at Quins (who I think will drop out).

      1. Haha Wasps fans are optimistically hoping for 6th! (not that 6th means anything anymore!)

        And I did carefully put starting international matches just because they obviously have a lot of players who are on the fringe on being internationals. Certainly Wilson is international standard but is behind Cole, and Eastmond/Webber are both probably 3rd down the list for their respective positions. I forgot about the Argentinian two to be fair. James is behind Jenkins by some distance for Wales, but yes is a good player.

        I think they have a good squad but I’d back Quins to edge 4th. I just think Bath are more likely to become inconsistent than Quins are. I’m also still baffled by the Henson move but that is a different conversation.

        1. Jacob, do you think that Bath have any less first choice international picks than, say, Harlequins or Gloucester?

          Depends on your picks of course, but I wouldn’t put Paul James and Dave Wilson any less down the international starting order than Danny Care or Mike Brown for example.

          With the exception of the two East Midland clubs and Saracens, they are in a better position than most others by this measure.

          1. I must stress that this is not the only measure I would use to rate teams! Just one that comes into my mind when I think of Bath. Probably because I always think of them as ‘nearly men’.

            On Gloucester/ Quins. There are the likes of Robshaw, even Care (who I know is behind Youngs), that are a bit more international class than the Bath contingent. Gloucester have Kvesic, Morgan, Burns, Twelvetrees etc. who will be there or there abouts. Obviously Bath have players who are in and around the squad too.

            I wouldn’t recommend using number of international players as a way of predicting the Premiership table. My original point was simply that Bath have a lot of ok, good Premiership players and I believe there are other teams around that have more international class players than will see them over the line into 4th come the end of the season.

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