Gallagher Premiership 2019-20 season review: Bath
A post-lockdown burst of form led to Bath making the play-offs for the first time in five years, as Ben Coles reports.
Back in the play-offs for the first time since 2014-15 after going an impressive winning run out of lockdown – losing just once in a nine matches until they faced Exeter last weekend – this was a very good campaign for Bath that perhaps came a little earlier than anticipated, given it was the first full season under Stuart Hooper as director of rugby and with Neal Hatley returning from England to become first forwards coach, then head coach.
Bath have never lacked for talent in the backs. Now (finally) their pack appear able to create a strong platform for the club to be contenders at the top.
Hatley’s influence has been enormous – Beno Obano, the prop in excellent form, when asked about Hatley’s promotion to head coach said that it felt as though Hatley was already fulfilling that role anyway when he returned from the RFU. Bath’s pack have gone up a level – maybe even five levels – and are now one of the best packs in the country.
Losing to Exeter given the form the Chiefs are in is nothing to be ashamed of, but looking forward, Bath want to be mainstays in the top four, not passers-by. Plus, Joe Cokanasiga is back and eager to make up for lost time, which bodes well.
Bath pre-lockdown were certainly not the force we saw afterwards and their yo-yoing form in those opening matches was a problem, with a 43-16 thumping at Bristol raising some eyebrows, while a 57-20 loss at Exeter Chiefs before the country shut down was far from pretty.
Looking back now, the club lacked the structure brought to the side by Ben Spencer at scrum-half, the steady hand needed to guide them through those gruelling wet-weather winter contests.
The draw at Saracens in the final game of the regular season felt like a reminder that while Bath might have made significant strides, there is still work to be done to turn them into a title-winning group.
Watching a 17-0 lead slip away at Allianz Park almost cost Bath their season. Had Sale won at home to Worcester then Bath would have missed out on the play-offs, putting all their good work since the restart to waste.
This could easily go to Spencer but, sticking with a player from the start of the season until the end, how about Tom Dunn?
Bath’s whole front row have been phenomenal since the restart but Dunn deserves plaudits for his shift throughout the campaign, finishing as one of the top tacklers in the Premiership with 217. Dunn also finished with a personal-high six tries in the Premiership this season as Bath’s maul continued to decimate opponents.
Mentions here for Obano, but also Sam Underhill, quietly excellent in Bath’s back-row and leading from the front. Josh Matavesi only arrived at the start of the year but has fitted in well at inside centre, while Ruaridh McConnochie was in top form post-restart, finishing the season with nine tries in 14 league matches.
This certainly will go to Spencer, although before discussing the England scrum-half, prop Will Stuart deserves plenty of credit for his impact since arriving from Wasps in the summer, forming a hugely effective front row alongside Obano and Dunn with Stuart going on to make his England debut. Josh McInally, signed from London Irish, has been quietly outstanding too.
But Spencer completely rewired Bath when he arrived at The Rec, with the side playing with less possession, kicking more, scoring more points and conceding less as they played, well, smarter.
Spencer’s made an instant impact with his intercept try against London Irish and both he and Bath never looked back, only coming unstuck at home to Wasps and then in that draw away at Saracens. His form has been so good that England caps over the autumn are now expected. Not forgetting the obvious leadership and authority he has brought to a Bath side who notably in the past have lacked both. Signed up on a three-year contract, it feels like a masterstroke.
Next season’s prospects
Encouraging, providing Bath can keep their momentum going from the past few months. It should be added that several of the young players – Tom de Glanville, Cam Redpath, Miles Reid – will be better off for the experience gained since lockdown, and all add depth to what already feels like a deep squad (aside from arguably fly-half).
Reaching the top four again will be the target for Hooper, Hatley and the rest of Bath’s coaches, given the pack can compete with anyone and the backs out wide are lethal on their day.
Plus, winning breeds confidence, and despite coming off second best at Sandy Park, Bath should have that in spades, buoyed that after a few years watching the play-offs from the outside, they have come up with a formula to challenge at the top again with Spencer marshalling a top-quality set of forwards.