Six months ago Bath sent their kids to play a cup match against Gloucester and lost 71-10. On Saturday they went back with their first team, Charlie Ewels, Sam Underhill and Taulupe Faletau in the pack, Ben Spencer and Danny Cipriani, Jonathan Joseph and Joe Cokanasiga in the backs, and lost again, 64-0 this time, with no excuses . It was the latest indignity in a season which has been one long humiliation. They started it by losing 12 games straight, were beaten 71-17 by Saracens, 64-7 by Leinster, 61-19 by Bristol – the sort of scores that make you turn up the radio to check whether you heard them correctly.
Bath still have two games left to play, at home to London Irish and away at Worcester, who are one point above them at the bottom of the table. But whatever happens next, it already feels like the season is far beyond saving. It was finished off by the merry cries of “Eeyore!” coming from the Shed as Gloucester ran in their 10 tries. The highlights were like watching traffic bollards try to defend against the sea.
The talk about what’s gone wrong at Bath has been going around the grounds all year. They even hired the former Saracens CEO, Ed Griffiths, to try to find out for them mid-season. There are theories, like the question about whether they would have played better if the Premiership wasn’t ring-fenced, and they had been threatened with relegation. The answer must be yes, you guess – imagine how that feels to the fans who have just been told to renew their season tickets by the end of this week if they want to take advantage of the early-bird prices.
There’s also a lot of talk about the director of rugby, Stuart Hooper, and whether he was underqualified for the job. There’s talk, too, about their owner, Bruce Craig, who has had a reputation for meddling in selection and with signings, but who has now decided to step down as chairman and let Griffiths take over. Then there’s the training base at Farleigh House, which is lavishly appointed and yet, they say, somehow inadequate for professional training. According to reports Griffiths has already decided they will move away from it next season, when Munster’s Johann van Graan will take over as head coach.
Good luck to him. But his appointment begs the question what, exactly, Van Graan is going to do that Steve Meehan, Ian McGeechan, Gary Gold, Mike Ford, Todd Blackadder, Neal Hatley or any of the other well-paid coaches they’ve had at the club in recent years couldn’t. It’s been 27 years since the game turned professional, and in January it will be 25 years since the club won a really significant bit of silverware, when they beat Brive 19-18 in the Heineken Cup Final. That team included Jon Callard, Mike Catt, Phil de Glanville, Nigel Redman, Martin Haag and Victor Ubogu. It was the last hurricane of the “Bath family”. Since then, they’ve won one Challenge Cup.
They weren’t the only club that made a mess of the transition to professionalism. But they were the only club that did it in front of a BBC documentary crew. The fly-on-the-wall series they made, The Rugby Club, hasn’t been repeated since, but there were moments in it that are burned indelibly in the memory, like the one in which Jon Hall, their director of rugby, said they were going to be “both the Liverpool and the Manchester United of rugby”. He was teased for it, but the Guardian had made a similar comparison a year earlier: “It’s fair to say that Bath are to rugby what Liverpool were to soccer in the era of Bob Paisley.”
Six league titles in eight years, 10 cups in 13, it’s all so well known to old fans that it hardly needs repeating, but so far removed from the present that new ones must think it’s ancient history. This season feels like a wreck that’s followed over a quarter-century of drift through professionalism. All the while, they’ve been waiting for the go-ahead on the new stadium which Hall was talking about back in 1996 (“It will be a 15,000 seat multi-sport arena,” he said, “we want it to be feasible venue for the Commonwealth Games ”). In March the club got permission from the council to keep their temporary stand up for another three years as a holdover.
It’s as if they lost something vital about themselves when the game made the big change. You could see them scrabbling around to understand it themselves in the worst parts of the BBC documentary, when their new head of marketing suggested they rename themselves the Bath Wreckers. Leicester, Bristol, Harlequins and Saracens have been at the bottom and back again since then, but their turnarounds were grounded in a strong sense of identity, in having a clear idea who they are and how they want to play – in doing it “their way ”. Bath used to take all that for granted. But they seem to have spent the professional era looking for someone to define it for them, which is why they’ve had as many different answers as they have high-profile coaches.
They still have the fans and are one of the best-attended clubs in the league, despite it all. They still have the players coming through their academy. And there are plenty of people out there who care. But something’s gone seriously wrong with the culture higher up the club. Some say that relegation might actually be better for them, that it would be the shock the club needs. The trouble with that plan is you’d need to believe they would definitely be able to find their way back again. Right now, you wouldn’t fancy them to beat Ealing.