Once mighty Bath on brink of another European exit
It is just over 20 years since Bath were a serious force in Europe.
The once mighty English club won the Heineken Cup in 1998 when a team containing, among others, Nigel Redman, Matt Perry, Adedayo Adebayo, Phil de Glanville and John Callard beat French side Brive 19-18 in the final in Bordeaux.
That victory, the first by a British club and coming three years after the inception of the Heineken Cup, felt like the natural progression for English rugby’s most powerful force of the 1980s and 90s, and felt as if it would set the West Country giants up for an extended spell of continental dominance, too.
But feelings can be deceiving. The intervening years have been barren, at best. Bath are no longer even contenders.
Twenty years on and the club which once reigned supreme in England and threatened to do the same in Europe is a pale shadow of its former self.
Despite Bruce Craig’s millions, Bath have gone nowhere in 20 years. It may not nice to hear, but the evidence is undeniable.
Currently lying sixth in the Gallagher Premiership, with just three wins from nine this season and only four points clear of Newcastle Falcons at the bottom of the table, Bath face a domestic relegation dogfight.
In Europe, their prospects hardly look any better. An opening round draw with Wasps, which did neither club any favours, was followed by defeat at home to Toulouse (look away now Freddie Burns). It’s left them in the now all-too accustomed position of struggling to get out of their pool. Lose to defending champions Leinster – in many ways the embodiment of the club Bath believed it would become - at the Recreation Ground today and Todd Blackadder’s men can all but wave goodbye to another European campaign before it has really begun.
The omens are not good. International stars Anthony Watson (Achilles), Jonathan Joseph (foot), Taulupe Faletau (broken arm), Rhys Priestland (knee) and Aled Brew (broken arm) are among those definitely sidelined while Zach Mercer picked up a knee problem in last weekend’s turgid draw with Sale and is also ruled out along with Freddie Burns (foot).
Leinster, fresh from crushing back-to-back Pro14 wins over Ospreys and Dragons, welcome back a host of Ireland stars buoyed by their undefeated autumn series.
Jack McGrath is side-lined for Leinster, but otherwise Leo Cullen’s men come fully loaded.
This week Bath unveiled their latest plans for the long-overdue redevelopment of the Recreation Ground. They look fantastic and appropriate for both the city and the club but we have been here so many times before, with so many false dawns, we’ll be forgiven for not getting overly excited at this stage.
With rumours of dressing room unrest emerging as early as mid-September, fiercely denied by the club and prompting the powers-that-be to offer Blackadder a one-year contract extension, Bath have once again lurched from one problem to another this season.
In truth, their fortunes have hardly improved since they opened their Premiership account with defeat by fierce local rivals Bristol and a draw at home to Gloucester.
Only the form of brilliant young wing Joe Cokanasiga has given Bath fans anything to cheer about. So it is perhaps no surprise Bath’s multimillionaire owner Craig is twitchy and one of several Premiership club owners agitating for a ring-fenced domestic league. With so much at stake, and so little obvious return on the millions of pounds he has poured into the club since buying it for an undisclosed sum in 2010, Craig must be wondering what on earth he let himself in for.
The life-long supporter stated when he bought the club he was not in for business or commercial reasons. At least that was one part of the grand plan which has materialised.
If they fail to qualify for Europe’s top competition next season, which at this point appears a genuine possibility, while the spectre of domestic relegation looms, all long-term bets will be off.
Grand plans, stadium redevelopment, future investment in the squad, rumoured to include a pending move for Exeter and England centre Henry Slade, would all be up in the air.
But for now, the short term.
With bookies making Leinster heavy odds-on favourites, a Bath victory at the Rec would, bizarrely, rank as one of the biggest upsets of the season so far.
Stranger things have happened, and sport is glorious because of its unpredictability, but it is hard to see past a relatively comfortable Leinster win today.
It all feels very different from 20 years ago at the Rec. It may be hard to believe now, but Bath used to be contenders, you know.
Two decades after sitting atop European rugby, Bath are now stagnating (Getty)
Joe Cokanasiga has been a shining light in a dark season so far (PA)
Bath released promising plans to redevelop the Recreation Ground this week (PA)