Once mighty Bath on brink of an­other Euro­pean exit

The Independent - - Sport / Rugby Union - SAM PETERS

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)

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