Winning ugly kick-starts Bath evolution
April 11, 2013
Bath pack down in front of Farleigh House © Getty Images
"This is it love - not a bad gaff is it?"
That was the understatement of the year from the taxi driver who took me to Farleigh House this week.
Farleigh House sounds like a country manor doesn't it? One you would frequent for a wedding, anniversary or if you were in need of a bit of pampering. Well country manor it is but there wasn't a wedding dress in sight just on my visit - just 30-odd burly rugby players as it is Bath's headquarters and a pretty impressive one at that.
They have been based there for a season or so and there is no doubt they are spoilt with the best facilities, the most beautiful views and tranquil surroundings - things that are generally linked with relaxation, chilling out and softening one's mood or character. This season it has done none of the above for Bath's forward pack - in fact it has had quite the opposite effect. Let me explain.
For a club that were historically winners, the last few seasons have been hard for Bath to the point they have started to be labelled "pretty losers" - exciting to watch but when push comes to shove they are a side some way short of title contenders and lacking the grit and resilience to truly compete with the best. However, this season, a new coaching team has highlighted the importance of winning - even if it is ugly.
Since head coach Gary Gold took charge, Bath seem to have a different philosophy and outlook. Fellow coach Toby Booth hammered this home when he said on his arrival that he had no qualms about winning ugly - 'what's the point in being pretty losers?' he said - and he has a point.
During our interview he pointed out that the best teams in England win ugly with a dominant pack. He spoke of Richard Cockerill and his Tigers who pride themselves on a group of forwards that can rival all comers.
He then spoke of Saracens who he believes have "won ugly" for what seems like the last two seasons. However, he was then quick to point out that they have broken free off their shackles since Christmas and have produced some very attractive rugby. Toby also explained how he thinks that Mark McCall's Sarries are probably three years into their "evolution" - he was insistent his team is only at the beginning of their journey.
The current coaching team obviously thought there were things that needed fixing - players attitudes, style of play, training methods - maybe all of the above and the result is the 'gritty' Bath we've seen this season.
They are a work in progress, as their league position suggests, but with their new-found resilience and grit comes the confidence and stability to start throwing it about a bit which we've certainly seen more recently. The backbone of their team now looks to be their forwards, with a solid scrum, hitting the breakdown harder and fighting for everything. This solid platform obviously has its benefits for the pretty boys. They have now scored almost double the amount of tries post-Christmas than they did in the lead up to the festive period.
As Toby said, "You get the basics in place - solid set piece and defence right first then you can start to look at the other stuff." And that seems to have been what they've done. They've certainly played a less expansive game for the majority of this season but now that they are happy with their gnarly pack who can "win ugly" if necessary. It may be time to let their backs loose a little more, after all, we have seen what Kyle Eastmond and co are capable of when they do get the ball.
Bath's base © Getty Images
At the moment Bath sit in sixth and are in possession of that final Heineken Cup qualification spot. With Wasps and Exeter hot on their heels these last three matches will all be treated as cup games or at least that appeared to be the message coming from the Bath boys this week.
Bath have to play Harlequins, Tigers then Sarries between now and the end of the season and therefore I think it is fair to say the fixture list has not been kind. Can they put the disappointment of the Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-final defeat behind them and notch what would be only their second away win of the season at The Stoop?
They will meet a Quins side relatively low on confidence themselves and short of momentum following their own euro exit and I guess the big question is will "winning ugly" be at the forefront of their minds? If they watched the way Munster outmuscled the defending Premiership champions on Sunday then you would have to think so.
Bath are a difficult side to beat but their transformation is not complete and it is perhaps worth reminding the team, that calls the town of Aquae Sulis home, Rome was not built in a day.
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Sarra Elgan is a roving reporter for ESPN