After the horror show of last season, many Bath fans would have been hoping that the appointment of Munster head coach Johann van Graan would have improved the team’s form in the English Premiership and helped them to start climbing back up the table. However, that has yet to happen, with the six-time Premiership winners currently once again propping up the rest of the division and they are the only side to have lost all four of their opening league matches this campaign.
However, there have been some positive signs in the West Country side’s performances, and this tactical analysis will show how they have played with good attacking tactics which have made them a handful to keep out at times. What is holding them back at the moment is their defending, which still needs a lot of improvement, and the analysis will break down exactly what is going wrong when they don’t have the ball and how they can start to get wins on the board.
The simple fact is that Bath are not a bad side once they get up the field, with an average of 29.5 points per game this season showing that they are dangerous to play against when they get into the opposing 22, and that in itself is a big step up on last season when they rarely reached the 20 point mark in a single match.
This improvement has come down to van Graan refining their style of play, with Bath now playing much more direct attacking rugby and individual players looking to run forward themselves rather than passing the ball down the line, with the aim being to try and catch their opponents out. This was evident from the very first match of the season, against fierce rivals Bristol Bears, when scrum-half Ben Spencer picked the ball up from the ground and instantly went forwards, dummying a few passes and scoring the try, with Bristol never looking like they could keep him out.
Bath’s handling skills have also been much better on the whole, with players on the same wavelength and appearing much more in tune with one another, and that has also been demonstrated on a number of occasions this season during their transitional play.
What has been obvious to see is that there are now always passing options available for players to use, which has enabled them to keep their momentum going and, again, catch their opponents out. Last season, they never looked like stringing too much together when moving forwards, so this is another aspect of their play that van Graan has really worked on.
The statistics back up these observations, because Bath at the time of writing have scored 118 points in total, which is the most in the Premiership’s bottom seven teams, whilst they have recorded 14 tries, which is the second-most in the same area of the league. Therefore, it is clear that they have been a threat when going forwards, and this is something that Bath fans can take heart from.
Where fans need to be concerned, though, is when their team doesn’t have the ball. Last season, the West Country side conceded a total of 763 points across their 24 matches, and they have already amounted 157 against them in their opening four league fixtures so far this year, which, it won’t be surprising to hear, is the most in the league at the time of writing.
Ultimately, one of the major reasons that this number is so high is because they have just been too easy to beat at times, with them practically opening the door and welcoming their opponents in at times, inviting them to score tries. Bristol didn’t have to work too hard to exploit them, and the try that Wasps scrum-half Will Porter scored against them in the third round of fixtures came after the Coventry side had delayed their first pass and taken the ball behind Bath’s defenders. Even though Wasps deserve credit for the way they moved the ball around in the construction of that try, Bath will look back and know that they could have done better to prevent it from being created.
They also come inside the pitch a lot and leave space open on the wings, which again invites pressure from opponents and gives opposing wingers all the time in the world to score against them, with Bath, as a result of them leaving less players out there, often finding themselves outnumbered when they do try to defend those areas of the pitch. This was particularly evident at the weekend, when London Irish’s Ollie Hassell-Collins and Ben Loader both scored hat-tricks simply by staying close to the touch line and waiting for the ball to come to them, and they frankly tore Bath to shreds at times with their incisive passing and raw speed.
Once again, it is important to back up these points with statistics, and they do not make good reading for fans, with van Graan’s side conceding a total of 20 tries in their four matches so far (an average of five per game), which it won’t be a surprise to learn is the most in the league. Therefore, it is clear to anyone watching that this is where their problems currently lie and is where they need to improve if they are to trouble the rest of the division.
However, whilst the team is struggling to get going this season, individual performances have not been too bad, and it will have encouraged Bath’s fans to see their influential players back in form and posing a threat to opponents.
The first names to mention are England duo Jonathan Joseph and Joe Cokanasiga, who have posed a threat from the back and always look dangerous when on the field at the same time. Both have plenty of pace to burn and work together well when in close proximity to each other, and that gives Bath more options when going forwards and is one reason that they have been so productive when in the opposing 22.
Cokanasiga’s form has been especially important, with Bath losing several wingers in the summer as Semesa Rokoduguni moved to French second tier side Montauban and Anthony Watson joined champions Leicester Tigers, and he will need to be on top form if his team are to continue posing a threat from the back. This week, that has become even more important as the news that fellow winger Will Muir has been ruled out for the season with a knee injury has broken, so a lot will be riding on his shoulders.
However, they will be joined in getting up the field and scoring tries by full-back Matt Gallagher, who returned to the English game in the summer after two years at Munster and joined his former coach van Graan in making the switch to the Rec. In his short time at Bath so far, he has made a big impact, getting up the field in a similar way to Exeter Chiefs full-back and Scotland captain Stuart Hogg, with the latter arguably one of the best in his position worldwide over the last few years.
To date, the former Saracens player has scored two tries for his new side, but there is a lot of hope that he will give the West Country side another attacking threat and will keep racking up points, providing their opponents with something else to think about.
In the pack, one player that has stood out for a number of campaigns is hooker Tom Dunn, who is without a doubt one of the best in his position in the Premiership when in top form. So far, he has made a strong start to the new season, with accurate lineout throws and good power at set-pieces, particularly rolling mauls, and his three tries scored show how important he is when the team is pushing forwards over short distances.
He has been included in England squads in the past and featured in the delayed 2020 Six Nations when they played Italy, so there is no doubting that he is one of the players that Eddie Jones will be keeping on his radar, and, if he maintains his positive start to the campaign, Bath will have a huge weapon in their pack and one that opponents might find it difficult to keep out.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at English Premiership strugglers Bath, seeing why they are not yet troubling those above them in the league but also why there are things that fans can still be positive about.
Ultimately, their attacking and defensive play are polar opposite to each other at the moment, with their attack looking much improved and it being clear how much they have worked on that aspect of their game, whilst their defence is continually letting them down and making it irrelevant as to how many points they score, because they will always ship a higher number.
They have recently added Russia prop Valery Morozov, England flanker Ted Hill, Australian back rower Fergus Lee-Warner and England centre Ollie Lawrence on loan from stricken club Worcester Warriors to help their growing injury crisis, and it surely is only a matter of time before their defence starts to get better, because van Graan brought Munster defence coach JP Ferreira with him to the Rec in order to address these concerns, meaning that Bath are being coached to play exactly how van Graan wants them to, which is worth noting.
Nevertheless, many feel that, whilst this is a long-term rebuild of the club, short-term improvements need to come sooner rather than later to prevent them from being cut adrift from the rest of the league.