Balancing Act: Pre Season Friendlies
By P G Tips
August 11 2017
Bath’s pre season friendlies will require a more than usually careful balancing act this month. In most years the coaches must trade off game time for all, development of key units and trial of new combinations, while attempting to build squad confidence and avoid untimely injury. This season, their preparations are complicated by the impact of summer tours, stalled recruitment and a lengthy injury list. Todd Blackadder has described late July and August as “ crucial in our preparation”. He further suggested that a high calibre of opposition was deliberately selected to set the squad up well for one of the toughest Premiership starts for many years. The three opponents chosen will certainly be testing: first a traditional derby against a Bristol side smarting from relegation, followed by visits to Pro 12 Semi Finalists Ospreys and Leinster. Blackadder also sees ‘fine tuned match day preparation away from the Rec” as essential to the new AP campaign. He will want to avoid a repeat of last season when having laid the ghost of Franklin’s Gardens, a bogey venue for a decade and a half, in the opening round, his team then conspired to lose most of their away games, including to all the bottom four finishers. The challenge therefore is a tough one on three fronts: correct past failings, manage present disruption and arrive in September fit and battle hardened for a baptism of fire. So- what should supporters expect from the next three weeks?
First, integration of new signings will be a key objective, despite a sparse harvest of summer signings. Two of the few new men are in key positions – Freddie Burns to replace George Ford at fly half and Sam Underhill at openside where Bath have struggled for turnovers when Francois Louw is not available. Neither are likely to start against Bristol: Burns to complete concussion protocols from last season, Underhill because Lions and England tourists will not be considered in the squad for that match. James Phillips and Josh Lewis though will both make their debuts on Saturday.
Management of resources is the next issue. The starting XV against Bristol is a mix of experience, debutants and Academy players, with two “guests” on the bench. Squads are likely to get stronger in response to the quality of opposition, with the Lions players unlikely to be used at all and the England squad members being held back for the final match against the European Semi Finalists in Dublin. Injuries have to be managed too – particularly in the front row where hookers Dunn, Batty and Van Vuuren are all currently out of action. The latter pair are “touch and go” for the season opener at Welford Road, leaving Jack Walker the likely starter and an opening for Nathan Charles to reprise his medical joker role of last season. Henry Thomas is targeting the second half of August for a playing return, while Nick Auterac missed most of last season – both will need to be handled carefully, putting quite a load on Beno Obano and Shaun Knight.
Playing style is the third thing to look out for. Blackadder has spoken of wanting to see the “systems and processes” the squad have been practising over the summer tested in the pressure of real matches. What these are he did not reveal, but I suspect a development on the themes of last year, particularly the “2-4-2” forward formation in open play. Added to these should be a more cohesive approach to counter attack by the back three with an emphasis on passing to outflank the opposition from deep. To make this all work, new leaders will be required to take the place of those departed or unavailable. Matt Garvey’s appointment as Captain is welcome news, but he will need help in key positions –Priestland may be one, Grant and Z Mercer potentially others.
Saturday’s derby will be a welcome return of real club rugby following three months of rumour and frustration. The recruitment scheme has seemed more “hit and hope” than “cunning plan” in that time, even if Blackadder remains confident of new signings in the next three weeks. Meanwhile the injury position looks just as bleak. Good news on the return of last season’s injured players has been sparse or rationed. Results may not matter in the way they would in a tournament, but performances must give hope for the coming campaign. Fans will hope that whatever the difficulties, whoever the personnel available, Bath Rugby can gain some confidence building wins and hit the new season running.
Saturday 12th August, Bristol – at Clifton RFC, 14:30
Sunday 20th August, Ospreys –at the Liberty Stadium, 14:00
Friday 25th August, Leinster –at Donnybrook Stadium, 19:45
For Saturday’s squad v Bristol see:
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