On Tuesday evening 1st May Bath Rugby held their first ever 'Fans' Forum' at the Clubhouse, at which the 2011-2 season was reflected upon by both the representatives of the Club's management and the fans who attended. A genuine sense of disappointment and frustration at the way this season had panned out was evident from both those 'on the platform' and the large audience crammed into the lower bar.
Initially responding to questions posed by Marketing & Communications Director, Jez Curwin, the panel of Chief Executive Nick Blofeld, First Team Coach Brad Davis, and Club Captain Stuart Hooper then took questions and comments from the floor and, I thought, answered all in as constructive and forthright manner as could have been expected.
Not surprisingly, Nick Blofeld refused to be drawn on the identity of the new coaching team – set to be announced next week, after the end of the regular Premiership season, except to confirm that Brad Davis would be an integral part of it, and that a Head Coach and not a Director of Rugby would be appointed. One or more additional specialist first team coaches would also form part of the coaching structure.
In response to a question from the audience, he thought it would have been inappropriate – given the aim of reviewing the season being to recognize and learn lessons, and then move on – to have included the departing coaches as part of the Forum.
Nick also confirmed that an individual to coordinate recruitment - in line with the Club's desired culture and ethos – would also be appointed soon, with the main aim being to 'home grow' future first-teamers from the Club's RFU-given catchment area of Somerset, Dorset and Wiltshire, supplemented only as far as was as necessary by players from around the world.
As far as the future of the Rec was concerned, Blofeld reported that he had been to Silverstone to look at a possible improved East Stand configuration, with room for better facilities underneath and boasting a roof to provide cover from the elements. It would have to remain as a temporary structure in any future design of the ground, however, due to the 'open' nature of the Rec itself.
It was planned to extend the South Stand eastwards; a new North Stand should contain a mix of seating and terrace; and the planned new Riverside (West) Stand was intended to be as aesthetically pleasing and fitting for the central location in the city as it was economically viable for the Club.
Completion by 2015, with a planned capacity of around 17,500, was still the target, and the aspiration was to submit a formal planning application within 12 months, following approval of the outline scheme by the Charity Commission (CC). Further delays had recently been caused by the allocation of a new Case Officer at the CC but, with the Club's purchase of Lambridge now having been completed, the 'land-swap' element of the scheme was now in place.
The major difference in approach for next season would be to increase the level of detail in planning and to institute a more frequent and robust review process throughout the management of the Club. Bath Rugby recognized that the Club needed to be a top-four side and winning trophies. That ambition flowed down from the Chairman, through the management and playing staff, and was shared by all of the supporters.
Whilst it had been acknowledged that some changes in personnel were needed at the end of this season, continuity was also considered to be an essential ingredient for achieving and then maintaining success. Continuity was also considered to have a vital role to play in the earlier phases of building a team, and a club culture, to enable that success – and an evolutionary approach more often led to sustainable improvement and its ultimate rewards.
Stuart Hooper pointed out that had been very much the case during his time at Leeds, particularly after they had been relegated from the Premiership, and then bounced straight back up. He also cited the benefits of continuity and a team closing together, and used the examples of how Harlequins and Northampton had now come to consider that relegation had actually been of benefit to them in the long-term – although no-one suggested that this was a good route to choose in order to improve, and Bath were not planning to undergo the experience in order to try it for themselves!
Bath's style of play was discussed, with Brad Davis openly describing the difficulties of selecting the most effective centre partnership over the season as one of his major issues. He readily acknowledged that mistakes had clearly been made – off the field as well as during matches – and whilst he and the Captain denied that passion or commitment had ever been absent from performances, they both admitted that imprecision of execution, collectively and by individuals, had dogged the team far too often in 2011-12.
The aspiration for next and future seasons, as described by Nick Blofeld, for "a bunch of gnarled forwards and for Bath to play wide rugby", met with warm approval from the floor. Questions about the limits of the Premiership salary cap drew the response from Stuart Hooper that he considered the major difference between English clubs and the Pro 12 teams to be more a matter of the preparation time available for European matches, given the relatively lower intensity of the league contests in Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
French teams did benefit from the greater depth of quality in their squads as a result of currently having a larger salary cap than here, but Hooper thought that financial issues would most likely result in a reduction in the French salary cap to something akin to the Premiership limit. Nick Blofeld pointed out that 'balancing the books' was also part of his remit as Chief Executive, although he could not foresee that being feasible until the new stadium had been completed with the resultant increase in revenue.
The Fans' Forum seemed to have been generally regarded as a worthwhile exercise which could usefully be repeated next season, supplemented be the formation of a Focus Group of a dozen or so supporters to meet regularly with the Club management.