Bath's Johann van Graan era is finally starting to show some promise
Worth the wait? It has been such a hard slog of a season for Bath that perhaps even Sunday’s bonus-point victory over Exeter Chiefs at the Recreation Ground, their first win in all competitions this side of Auld Lang Syne, may not have quite made up for a gruelling campaign.
But it crucially did allow Bath supporters to do something which has been rare in recent months – smile. Finn Russell, Bath’s incoming fly-half for next season, picked a good day to attend and watch his future club in action.
Right from Cameron Redpath’s celebrations as he raced towards the corner for their opening try something felt a bit different about Bath. They went behind and lost Beno Obano to the sin-bin but still scored twice within just over five minutes before half-time.
When faced with a team playing as poorly as Exeter in the second half, you have to make hay when the sun shines, and Bath delivered. Not to take anything away from Johann van Graan’s side, but Exeter were so ill-disciplined and inaccurate that Rob Baxter was left openly questioning whether some of his side would play for the team again. “We can’t perform as a team because individually we are killing each other,” the director of rugby lamented.
Coming away from the Recreation Ground without either a try or losing bonus points is close to disastrous, but Exeter do at least have three games left to try to work their way back into the play-offs.
It was the manner of their display which will rankle. Conceding 18 penalties and missing 18 out of 117 tackles makes for grim reading. Baxter, speaking mid-game live on BT Sport, did well not to combust as Exeter twice kicked poorly to give away possession.
Bath, to their credit, capitalised and produced their best performance of the season. The short-range power game was back, with tries for Obano and Tom Dunn, the latter off a maul. Redpath’s try, nice as it was with a good sidestep, might have felt a bit fortunate but the accuracy in Joe Cokanasiga’s try before half-time was excellent. It started with Ben Spencer’s change of direction and the accuracy of Orlando Bailey’s chip-kick, before Cokanasiga did brilliantly to break through Josh Hodge’s tackle attempt to score.
You could understand if Bath followers still felt twitchy when ahead 33-14 after 55 minutes. Being home and dry that early in the second half does not feel right when you have not won since December, and the butchering of what should have been a walk-in score will not have helped heart rates.
How did @BathRugby not finish that off?! 🤯
Hands on heads all around 🙆#GallagherPrem pic.twitter.com/vqokGX8bYf
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) March 26, 2023
What changed though? Bath in their previous two games had conceded 48 points against Leicester and 45 at Northampton, so shoring up the defence was a start. Key players performing at their best helped – “Cameron Redpath was on fire, Joe Cokanasiga had his best game of the season, while Ben Spencer dictated the game,” Van Graan noted. But, really, it was the performance up front which may give the head coach in his first season the most encouragement, with Obano and Will Stuart scrummaging well and Dunn setting the tone physically with 18 tackles.
Listening to Van Graan and defence coach JP Ferreira, it seems the penny had dropped for the players, with Van Graan stressing that they “stuck to the plan”. Ferreira told the BBC: “We’re getting to a point where they’re thinking like we’re thinking and it takes time. It takes time to build those habits and to get rid of the old ones.”
This season was always a building block, a chance for Van Graan to assess the players, install systems and plan ahead. Russell’s arrival is exciting and will sell season tickets but the signing of Springbok prop Thomas du Toit feels just as important. Bath are still some way off competing with the best but on Sunday, at last, it felt as though this rebuild began to take shape.