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Risk v reward: equation that turned Bath into Premiership dark horses
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Risk v reward: equation that turned Bath into Premiership dark horses

For multiple reasons this has been a Premiership season like no other. Just 10 competing clubs, a prolonged midterm hiatus and only 11 points separating the top seven teams before the final weekend of the regular league campaign. Tight at the top with plenty of thrills and spills on the field is a collective win‑win for players, fans, television executives and sponsors.

Should the run-in follow a similar pattern and the feelgood vibe endure, it will be even better news for the English game. There is just one potential snag. As the stakes rise it is easy for ambition to become constricted and for conservatism to take over, lest one mistake undermine a coach’s entire grand design. Sport’s most tantalising equation – risk v reward – suddenly looms larger.

Which is why it was so interesting this week to talk to Bath’s head of rugby, Johann van Graan. As a proud South African reared on the holy trinity of set-piece power, hard work and no-nonsense physicality, he is not given to flights of romantic whimsy. Increasingly, though, the former Springbok forwards coach sounds like a TV evangelist who has seen the light. “You won’t see us going into our shells. We’re going to enjoy it and play the way we play. If you were writing the script for the final weekend, who knows what will be written? I think that’s the beauty of sport and rugby.”

Who dares wins, in other words. Light the blue, black and white touchpaper and see what happens, in contrast to the monochrome gameplan employed by Bath for much of last season. It clearly helps to have a top drawer fly-half such as Finn Russell whirling the creative baton behind a revitalised pack but the club’s assistant coach, Lee Blackett, says it is a collective trend. “I think the Premiership has changed. It’s a lot less risk averse. Not many teams in the Premiership are playing the percentages.”

Blackett, the director of rugby at Wasps before the club’s financial collapse, is also convinced the onrushing attack dogs will keep coming regardless of the rising end-of-season tension. He has been crunching the technical stats and the key markers are no longer consistent ruck success or predictable kicking. Instead a posse of sides – table-topping Northampton, Harlequins, Exeter, Bristol and the defending champions, Saracens – are marching to the same high-tempo, proactive tune, happy to play it faster and slightly looser because they sense that points mean prizes. Turnover conversion rates, rather than error-free rugby, are increasingly the name of the game.

Lee BlackettView image in fullscreen

It has found favour partly because the leading sides have the players to make it happen and partly because even rugby’s most loyal followers were growing weary of watching aerial ping-pong. Comparative stats are complicated by this season’s reduced number of fixtures and recent blowout defeats for Gloucester and Newcastle but the league is averaging 3.8 tries a game as opposed to 3.4 last season.

Think of it less as dumbing down than an overdue age of enlightenment. Van Graan and Blackett also feel Bath have further improvement in them, as long as they keep accentuating the positive. “We’ve gone through a lot in the last 21 months and at some stage you’ve also got to enjoy it,” says Van Graan. “That means embracing the place we’re in because the reward is big. You don’t get anything in life for free. It requires something between luck, hard work and grace. Ultimately we choose what we do and we love moments like this.”

Which raises the next question: could there yet be a major late twist in this tale? In particular, can anyone other than Saracens and Northampton, fancied by many to make the final at Twickenham on 8 June, make a decisive late burst? A surprise win for Sale Sharks at Saracens on Saturday, for example, could transform everything. And could Bath, who need a minimum of one point at home to Northampton to nail down a playoff place, yet be party poopers? Saints have made 13 changes to the side that thumped Gloucester 90-0, resting Courtney Lawes and Fin Smith, but it remains a strong XV. Lewis Ludlam returns from injury in the back row while Ollie Sleightholme, the league’s leading try scorer, is also retained.

Bath’s attacking turbo-thrust is impressive when it clicks. Admittedly they have allowed some winnable games to slip away – most notably against Saracens at home last month and at Exeter in the Champions Cup – but the players’ self-belief is unrecognisable from their dark days at the foot of the league a couple of years ago. “It’s amazing to think where we were,” says their galloping flanker Ted Hill, another striking example of a refugee from a financially stricken club – in his case Worcester – who has improved another club and, by extension, the league.

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In Hill’s view, Bath’s recovery is hardly rocket science: better players, a star fly-half and good coaching have all played some part. “You can’t step away from the obvious stuff. I think there’s been some really smart recruitment which has worked really well.” That said, he also rates Van Graan’s squad management highly. “I think Johann’s been massive. He’s been a really great figurehead at the top of the club. He’s got a vision of where he wants this club to be. You can have the best players in the world but if you’re not together and acting as a team it’s always going to be difficult. I think Johann is the most important part of the jigsaw.”

As Saracens underlined during their hard-fought 15-12 win at the Rec, that still does not make Bath obvious title favourites. Then again, if the same two teams are reunited in the semis, the fit-again Russell will be involved. “I knew his catch-pass was good but when you see it up close – how fast he gets the ball in and out of his hands – he’s one of the very best in that area,” says Blackett. And why would Bath, with plentiful threats farther out, not fancy maximising that super skill?

So spin the final-day wheel and place your bets. “I can almost guarantee there’ll be some twist,” says Van Graan. Rest assured, too, that those closest to the fray will be experiencing the same palpitations as those fidgeting in the stands or fretting on their sofas. “It’s been building for the last five or six rounds, hasn’t it?” says Blackett. “I hope there’s plenty more drama on the final day because it’ll keep raising the profile of the league. With seven teams still in with a chance of the top four, it’s as good as it’s ever been.” This year’s series finale, if nothing else, should be serious fun.

Source: theguardian.com