Gareth Chilcott knows a thing or two about winning rugby matches in the Blue, Black and White, and today offers some sage advice to Bath Rugby as the club regroups after a tricky season.
The decorated prop bore the famous jersey 373 times in a career which started as an 18-year-old, joining from Old Redcliffians in 1977. As some will know well, his arrival pre-empted that of Jack Rowell the following season.
‘Coochie’ as he is of course more commonly known in these parts, is an iconic figure to this day, despite all the trappings and pursuant razzmatazz of the professional game.
The superlatives flow from the pen as easily as they do from the tongue. ‘Cornerstone’, ‘Rock’, ‘Foundation’; perhaps we ought to revert to the simple, no nonsense pragmatism more in keeping with the man himself.
‘Coochie’ once described himself as ‘a young buck with antlers’ who ‘didn’t mind taking on anybody.’ Ask anyone about his role at the club over the years and it is plainly apparent that his evolution was extraordinary.
Vice captain for over 10 years, Chilcott became a figure commanding the respect of all senior and young players, a conduit for, and example of, the positive effect rugby can have on a young man, and far beyond the game itself.
Whatever the respective league positions, the visit of Leicester Tigers will get the blood up for fans and players alike. Gareth is, like many, frustrated by the staccato nature of the season, but says he earnestly believes the current crop are not too far off scaling the heights once more.
“Last season, Bath, apart from losing in the final to Saracens, played some breathtaking stuff,” he begins.
“I think we took everybody by surprise a little bit in the way we ran everything, the way we played around George Ford, the way we played around 10, centres, wingers.
“I think it’s like any sport - the second season is always the hardest. This year, sides realised what we were doing. Sides knew how to play against us, sides defended against us because that was the way we were going to play.
“You’ve always got to stay ahead of the field so I would have liked to have seen us with some more ‘armoury’ this year.”
Ask him to elaborate, and the man capped 14 times for England, and a Lions tourist says it’s as much about adaptability as grunt.
“‘Armoury’ for me, is trying to slow it down for ten minutes in the corner. It’s about back rows taking people on for a quarter of an hour, driving, driving, rucking, mauling, lineout drives.
“Rugby is a game of very different angles and very different strengths and you need to be able to do all of them well.”
Gareth is all in favour of responsibilityy taken on the field of play, by the players; an ability to adapt, think on their feet, to react to specific circumstances and specific opponents. The team he played in had that in abundance, he recalls.
“You need a good blend of people with lots of good stuff between the ears.
“You had good rugby brains throughout the side, you had a good spine. You had wingers, players that would gee each other up,” he says.
“In my day, you had front rows, you had people like Nigel Redman, John Hall, Stuart Barnes, Richard Hill, the Guscotts, the Hallidays, you had all these players that knew what to do in certain circumstances and were prepared to do what it took.
“Jerry Guscott was quite happy to change balls all game if it meant we were going to play that type of game and win that game. Whereas on another day, his more natural game would be to give him the ball because he can run round them or past people. It’s a blend - what you need to do to win particular games.”
We agree that champions standing Saracens’ success is absolutely no accident. Thousands of hours of endless practise, then execution on match day makes them the dominant force they are today - defending their domestic crown and in the final of the Champions Cup as they are. “It becomes second nature,” says the great man.
We move on to the modern game, and the challenges of life in the front row. Naturally we concede the game has changed entirely since Gareth roamed the Rec, yet he contends that the scrummage remains a vital part of the game of rugby union, and is moving, slowly in the right direction.
He passionately extols the virtues of the skills required at the set piece - skills which young players today in the front row must not lose.
“Nowadays it is a completely different game to when I played. You still need to have handling skills, you still need to know what to do in certain places You have to have immense skill and strength now,” he says.
“At the end of the day, the game has changed, but you’ve still got to be able to scrummage. The laws have been tweaked slightly, not enough yet for my liking, because I still believe scrummaging is something key in modern rugby.”
“In my day it was a skill to wheel a scrum. It was a skill to stop somebody wheeling a scrum. It was a skill to have a scrum on an angle so a number eight can have a clear run at someone. We had hookers that could hook channels 1, 2 or 3 depending on what move we were doing.
“That’s not an old has-been saying that, because I think the game has moved on for the better, obviously, but we do need to make sure we haven’t lost the scrum, otherwise we’ll end up doing exactly what League do. Which is put it in crooked, just have big men nine the front row with no talent, apart from maybe being able to run with the ball and tackle, and that’s it.
“They’ve got to be strong, sinewy, immensely talented, but they also need to be rugby players. I think the sooner we get back to that the better.”
And as for Bath - no lack of fire in the belly for Leicester today, but with an eye on the future, it’s the small margins that need addressing if this hugely talented group are to fulfil their potential. He concludes,
“I think that Bath are an outstanding side to watch. We are so near to being the finished article, but you just need to get the right mixture of grit up front and skill behind I think.”
Interview by Patrick J.Lennon
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