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Bruce Craig interview: I don’t know how many millions I have put into Bath, but it’s worth it

Bath Rugby's Owner Bruce Craig during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Play-Off Semi Final match between Bath Rugby and Sale Sharks at The Recreation Ground on June 1, 2024 in Bath, England
West Country-born Craig is a lifelong Bath fan - Getty Images/Bob Bradford

It would be logical to assume that, for Bruce Craig, Bath’s millionaire owner of the past 14 years, victory against Northampton in the Premiership final on Saturday would have been everything. This is the man, competitive to his core, who has ploughed an unknown quantity of millions into the south-west club with, as yet, no trophy to speak of. Impressive signings, sell-outs and a town drunk on rugby all have been realised, but, in the cold light of day, Bath’s season was ultimately one of near-misses, plucky losses and what-might-have-beens.

But Craig is unperturbed. In a rare interview afforded to Telegraph Sport, Bath’s owner insists that his side’s “heroic” performance was only the beginning for the club, in what has been his favourite season so far. After a seven-year wait, he has the humble coach he always wanted, the dazzling fly-half, too, at a stately and state-of-the-art training base. He has “the league’s best medical and strength-and-conditioning team”, which provided a full roster of players fit and available during the business end of a season, and soon work will start on the 18,000-seat stadium for which he has yearned for years.

So, while victory on Saturday would naturally have been the reward for a season of graft at Farleigh House, the world will continue to turn and next season will roll into view with alarming promptness. For Bath’s owner, a boyhood fan of the club, the cost of dragging a team from the foot of the table to the cusp of the top has all been worth it.

Bruce Craig, Owner of Bath Rugby (L) talks with Sir James Dyson following the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Bath Rugby and Northampton Saints at The Recreation Ground on May 18, 2024 in Bath, England
Craig is regularly spotted at games with fellow Bath fan James Dyson – whose company is the club's current shirt sponsor - Getty Images/Dan Mullan

“I love the club and I love the people,” Craig says. “I love the supporters. Everyone who came when we were at the bottom of the table, that meant a lot to me. In the rain, wind, we were losing and we were selling out the Rec. I’m not giving up, because I see that.

“Even though there were some really hard times and decisions that did not go our way - and maybe some bad ones, too - but they all stuck at it. I stick at it. I don’t give up. That’s life. You’re down, you’re up - when you’re down, what you have to do is wake up the following day and work out how to get better.

“I don’t know how much I have invested. I don’t count it. It’s not about the money. People can work out how much I’ve put in if they want - look on the balance sheet. There’s a shareholder loan in there for £25 million or something - that’s one chunk of money. There’s £7 million from not even putting one brick of the stadium in place. It’s a reasonable chunk of money.

“I think we gained the hearts and minds of a lot of people after that performance on Saturday. Win or lose, people can see that that’s an exceptional team in the making. Our guys were heroic. They played their hearts out. It was stunning. From where we were 18 months ago – bottom of the league – and what has been achieved has been pretty extraordinary.”

‘I will give my view’

Craig owns 100 per cent of Bath Rugby and, therefore, would be well within his rights to do whatever he fancied. Given it is his money being spent, it is natural to wonder how much input he has into the club’s recruitment.

There is a wry smile before he sets off on an impassioned defence: “We have got Rob Burgess [head of recruitment] who has done an exceptional job. Before, I would be making decisions. Marquee players coming to Bath Rugby, and I’m paying, then I wanted to be making those decisions. I wouldn’t buy one without talking to the coach but I would say: ‘Taulupe Faletau?’ I wanted him and that was negotiated. The money aspect is really important.

“Do I get involved now? I will give my view. Jacques du Plessis [recently signed second row] is someone who I have always thought was very intimidating on a rugby pitch and when I’ve seen him play against Bath – or watching the Top 14 – he’s like a man mountain. Johann [van Graan, head of rugby] wanted RG Snyman. There are players who Johann has identified and I wouldn’t go against that. Thomas du Toit was absolutely a Johann signing – nothing to do with me.

“This is where the respect between a head of rugby and myself comes in. That relationship is really good. I’m not going to impose someone on him, but I’ll give my view. I played 20 years of rugby – that’s the big difference. In France, the likes of Mourad Boudjellal [former Toulon owner] and Thomas Savare [former Stade Francais owner] have never played rugby.

Thomas du Toit of Bath looks on during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Play-Off Semi Final match between Bath Rugby and Sale Sharks at The Recreation Ground on June 01, 2024 in Bath, England
Thomas du Toit was first identified as a target by head coach Johann van Graan - Getty Images/David Rogers

“They are money men! I’m not a money man – OK, I have some money – but I’m not a money man. My passion is rugby. I played rugby from the age of seven until I was in my thirties. I watch the game as an avid supporter. So, OK, Bath Rugby is my team and the team that belongs to the city but I just want what’s best for the team. I have competence in rugby. If a head coach turned round and said: ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ OK, but they’re not going to do that, because I can talk about the intricacies, strategy, and what’s going on on the pitch. I actually played. I captained teams for years.

“I’m not suddenly going to change character, either. I’m putting my money on the table to create something great and to have something for the city, players, staff and all those involved. It’s a journey!

“I won’t own Bath Rugby for ever, because, hopefully, it will go on for another 50, 100, 150,000 years in the future! It’s a bit cliché but the reality is that I am one in a line. The important thing is to leave it in a much better place than I took it on. We can put the stadium in place, we have amazing training facilities - we have a structure that makes sense.

“The objective is to be at the top for the next 10 years and beyond. Success is being up at the top table, being seen as one of the best teams in Europe. That’s the ambition - and why not? Premiership champions, Champions Cup champions and, who knows, Club World Cup champions. Those aspirations and dreams... you don’t want to take those away.”

‘English rugby is in a good place’

Bath are a team whose two poster boys – Van Graan and scrum-half Finn Russell – could not be more diametrically opposed in terms of personality. Russell the showman; Van Graan the foreman. But there is chemistry – and with Craig, too. Indeed, the Bath owner identified the duo as key to his club’s hopes in 2017 and could not have come closer to securing them.

“Decision-making is difficult,” Craig says. “Over the years, you’re never quite sure. I took Sir Ian McGeechan, Mike Ford; players like Faletau. They are all done for the right reasons but, for whatever reason – injuries, not quite the right fit, whatever – they don’t gel. This time, Johann van Graan is absolutely the right person for Bath Rugby and for me in terms of the relationship we have. It’s respect; a really good relationship. He respects me and I respect him. It’s top notch – and I’m not sure that’s always the case. A lot of coaches pay lip service to the owner, whereas Johann is a very trustworthy and respectful individual.

Johann van Graan oversaw a remarkable turnaround at Bath last season
Johann van Graan oversaw a remarkable turnaround at Bath last season - Getty Images/Bob Bradford

“In 2017, the two people I was trying to bring into the club were Johann and Finn. Not a lot of people know this but I contacted Johann after seeing what he had done in South Africa, seeing the man he was after meeting him three or four times. I thought he was absolutely the man for Bath Rugby. We agreed terms with his agent, his wife wanted to come to Bath – it was all lined up for 2017 when Mike Ford had just left. But the South African Rugby Union said they didn’t want him to go because Johann had another year on his contract. But we absolutely needed someone – it couldn’t wait – and you can just see sliding doors in life. In 2017, Johann could have been our coach. But he said: ‘One day, I will come to Bath.’ We always stayed in touch, we had a good relationship, texting each other regularly.

“Also, I was watching Bristol v Bath at Ashton Gate and I met up with Finn’s agent. He was leaving Glasgow and it was between Racing 92 and us. What happened at that point was that Finn wanted to have a few years in Paris.”

The interim seven years have not been the smoothest for English rugby, but Craig believes the storm has been largely weathered. There are still challenges – “at Bath, we need financial stability, sustainability, getting the club to a break-even point where I’m not losing £4 million a year” – but Craig is excited about the young talent coming through and everything should be done to keep them on these shores.

Bath owner with fly half Finn Rusell after the game Bath v Sale Sharks, Gallagher Premiership Semi-Final, The Rec, Bath, UK
Bruce Craig had been targeting Finn Russell since 2017 before finally signing him last year - Shutterstock/Matt Impey

“With all the negativity over the last few years, it’s time to move on,” Craig says. “Let’s not talk about three clubs going bust or the players going to France; let’s talk about the amazing academies and the youngsters coming through. The Cunningham-Souths, Pearsons and Feyi-Wabosos - a whole raft of young, English talent. We have the most players in the world and we should be at the top of the game. We should be heralding that.

“Each of our 10 Premiership teams are much stronger. What happened is very unfortunate but are 10 teams right for English rugby? We had two Champions Cup semi-finalists and we could have had two finalists. It wasn’t far off. The state of English rugby... we’re in a good place. We need to start being positive about rugby and start speaking in the right way around it being a great game, with its values, spectacle, and entertainment.

“English club rugby is in a moment of transition and I am very positive, upbeat and excited about the future. There have been certain players who have left France who either don’t believe in their ability to play for England or they have done it for lifestyle reasons... it’s fundamental to keep the best players in England. It must remain an absolute rule. If there were a player exodus, there would be nothing good about that.

“Our objective should be for those guys to come back to England and play in the Premiership. Our objective in the next five years is to make English club rugby the best in the world. That’s the aspiration - maybe we’re not that far away from it - but our vision is for people around the world to look at it with the best entertainment, amazing rugby, and with the best players in the world.”

In that regard, Bath are doing their bit. Next stop? Trophies.

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