“I just didn’t want to lose. When I went on the pitch, I had fourteen people alongside me who were exactly the same.”
Widely regarded by supporters and peers alike as arguably the best forward ever to be produced by the Club, John Hall is a man who personifies Bath Rugby.
In one of life’s symmetries, typical to top level sport and particularly rugby, both the Club and the gentleman have enjoyed a special, reciprocal relationship over a lifetime, through both trying and triumphant periods.
Former blindside flanker John proudly bore the Blue, Black and White on 277 occasions over a 14-year senior career, captained the Club, lifted trophies and won more when he moved into management following the end of his playing career in 1995.
Running his own companies these days, married and with two daughters, John also completed an incredible coast to coast team cycling ride for charity in 2014 in aid of Asthma UK following the sad death of 10-year-old local girl Antonia Thomas. His team completed the challenge in an incredible seven days, nine hours and 42 minutes, raising in excess of £50,000.
But even a set of vastly impressive playing statistics are insufficient to do justice to the lifelong association with the Club, starting at the age of six or seven. The 21-times capped England man was known to run around with a ball on the Rec as a boy, playing in the dark after watching dad Peter turn out for the First XV.
Inspiration to play the game reportedly came at St Brendan’s College RFC in October 1971, watching them play an International XV, which included nine Lions and seven other internationals - the likes of Mike Gibson, David Duckham, Sir Gareth Edwards and Barry John were fresh from the victorious tour to New Zealand.
A 77-44 win for the stellar cast was a creditable result for the College men!
Growing up a Welsh supporter and spending a great deal of time over in Cardiff, John enjoyed watching some magical rugby in the 1970s - “those halcyon days in Wales”, he tells Club historian Kevin Coughlan in his excellent tome “After The Lemons.”
John began his first team Bath career at the Rec against Pontypridd on 5th September 1981, a narrow 19-22 defeat on what was described at the time as a ‘bone hard pitch.’ John made it into dispatches straight off the bat, credited with having ‘a storming game’ off the bench.
A prophetic performance if ever there was. John’s early career statistics were eye-watering. A tall, powerful back row forward with amazing speed, he averaged a try every three games in the first few seasons, a remarkable achievement. His total for Bath stands at 87.
Allied to those creditable qualities, John was imposing physically, a fierce tackler, a feared competitor, ever ready to go toe-to-toe with the toughest opposition. Ask any of the intimidating Tigers alumni of the early 90s, Messrs Johnson, Back, Wells.
Stories abound of the famous game for the South West against a touring All Blacks at Bristol in 1983 when John was the only native player to give as good as he got to the illustrious visitors in an 18-6 reverse. Four days later, England beat them at Twickenham.
When he toured New Zealand with England in 1985, locals were heard to say he of all the tourists should stay behind, such was their respect for the man.
Bath’s glorious period would come when John was an established fixture in the side - few men were indispensable during that period under Jack Rowell, but most agree Hall was one such.
“I think on a personal level it was almost like a fear of losing,” says John when asked about that culture, that will to win which characterised the success.
“We had highly competitive people within the squad which in some ways you could say they came together by chance, in other ways Jack Rowell was the man who pulled it all together. I think it was a bit of both.”
“We had some highly competitive people that didn’t like to lose, who were really born winners. The thought of losing a game for me…maybe that’s the wrong way of looking at things in the modern era, but I just didn’t want to lose.
“When I went on the pitch, I had fourteen people alongside me who were exactly the same.”
John elaborates, saying that a game of cards on the coach to an away fixture on a Friday night in those days was every bit as fractious as the ensuing match. Big personalities bounced off each other, bonded, formed a fearsome cohesive unit which ruled the English game during the 1990s in the heady pre-professional days for Bath Rugby.
“That environment wasn’t for the faint hearted. It was a tough environment,” agrees John.
“If you did something wrong or you weren’t up to the standards that were expected of the team, there was a huge amount of peer pressure within, that made sure you bloody well fix it or get out - that kind of attitude. It was a very strong peer pressure approach to the team environment.
“Wrapped around that, if you look at the leaders that we had in team, we had a backbone of leaders throughout. Some people say we had too many leaders!
“There was a real hardcore like Gareth Chilcott, Stuart Barnes, Jerry Guscott, Richard Hill, Nigel Redmond, Andy Robinson was captain and leader. You also had someone who was the general at the top in Jack Rowell.
“He’s Marmite to people, some people didn’t like his style. I loved his style. For me he didn’t make huge changes, it was just little tweaks for me and I responded to that really well.”
A succession of serious knee injuries robbed John of the international recognition he would surely have achieved as a player. Loyal Rec regulars certainly think so, and John’s retirement saw the droplets swell into of a tide of opinion that he was one of the rarest talents the Club has ever seen.
John called time on his playing contribution on 24th April 1995 against today’s visitors Northampton Saints in a 26-6 win. His subsequent move into a management role coincided with the dawn of the professional era, and proved challenging for all concerned at the Club.
“We were all very much amateur players, with a small ‘p’, in the way we approached games, and going into the professional era was difficult for all the clubs. It was a tough time for Bath Rugby, and it was a tough time for me personally.
“Emulating that winning culture was difficult when we had a lot of new players arriving, cross code players coming in and the whole cultural change within the club with new owners, so to maintain that culture we had, a tight knit band of brothers, was very difficult.
“I was really pleased to see that the Club went on with a group of players, a hardcore that we kept. Phil and myself worked really hard to keep that core of players together, to win the European Cup, which was very heartening.”
In conversation with any Bath Rugby supporter, John Hall is revered, naturally, but not as a one-dimensional ‘club man’ or bruising competitor so favoured by parochial elements at any club.
“He had it all,” one gentleman simply told me this morning, the consensus being John could have played for the England team of today, such was his talent and consistent level of performance.
As a storied exponent of the position therefore, John doesn’t think that the attributes for a good blindside have changed too much since his day, even if the professional full-time athletes we see running out on to the hallowed turf this afternoon have undergone a physical transformation.
“Has the position changed? Fundamentally no,” John contends.
“I don’t think it has in terms of the type of person and the attributes you need as a number six. Certainly the attributes that I needed as a player when dinosaurs used to roam the earth, are the same now!
“The level of training, the level of physicality, that exist in the game now, I feel there’s no comparison to what there was back in my time.”
John is readily at odds with the suggestion that there is less skill in the game these days, on account of the torrid pastures of the Premiership and Europe, space at a premium, giants everywhere.
“Yes, in our day there was a lot more space and a lot more time to operate, but I don’t agree with that,” he tells me.
“I think that nowadays, because they have less space, the players have to be much more skilful in what they are doing. They get much less time to execute, so when they do execute, they have to do so with a lot more precision.
“The game evolves, and there is little time now in a game to make decisions. The decision-making has to be very, very quick, it has to be precise, it has to be right.”
John describes himself as “in awe” of the skill levels displayed by champions New Zealand at the recent Rugby World Cup tournament, but says that the challenge for the northern hemisphere is acute. A rise in skill levels across the board is required, from grassroots up, if we are to compete.
“Certainly in this country, it’s getting that parity and level of skill across the game. Bath certainly demonstrate that. Getting that very high skill level across the game is the challenge that northern hemisphere rugby now faces,” he says.
Bath at times have excelled in that regard, argues John, and fully expects Mike Ford and the side to prosper. He commends Bruce Craig on his assembly of a superb crop of talent in an effort to usher back the glory days and see silverware and pursuant status return to Somerset. He concludes,
“I watched both the Leicester games last year - 40 points in each one. It was some of the best rugby, they were some of the most entertaining games I’ve seen on the Rec. Fantastic rugby.
“I think you only need to look at some of the rugby that Bath played last season and have started to play this season. I think Bath now have a fantastic squad of players. We’ve been pretty consistent in terms of the Premiership performances in the past two or three years, now it’s about taking that next step.”
Interview by Patrick J.Lennon
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