Much of the time in our series of legends articles this season, we have heard from the men who proudly bore the Blue, Black and White during the ‘Golden Era’ for Bath in the 80s and 90s.
Fly-half John Horton began his tenure in 1973, having moved down from Sale for a job at the Technical College in the City, where he bumped into old friend Mike Beese.
The rest as they say is history; a staggering 380 games for the First Team, 125 drop goals, 90 tries of his own. The promising young player made the decision to join Bath over a couple of other suitors, notably Bristol.
But he knew Beese from his Liverpool playing days and was convinced to play at the Rec. For a young man from the north west, he found that he was arriving to a foreign environment. He says that Bath was a tight knit squad, replete with local talent above all, these after all were well before the days when top players from around the country were knocking on the door to come and play for the Club.
“My first impression was that I was literally the only outsider - they were all local lads who played,” says John. “Being an outsider with the type of rugby Bath played, it was a bit of an eye-opener to begin with.”
“Bath had always been a forward oriented side. Once we got the likes of Jim Waterman, Mike Bees, Alan Parfitt and myself it changed. Because Bath packs at that time probably weren’t as dominant as they were going to be, we ran virtually everything. Eventually, that’s what we became known for.”
John contends that the hard-nosed forward reputation synonymous with Bath Rugby during the eighties was still a work in progress during those early years - Jack Rowell arrived in 1978 and began to affect that particular change. John continues,
“It took a couple of years before we really got recognised, but as soon as we started putting results together, inevitably, better players joined. When I came, most people were saying that they would have Bristol or Gloucester before they joined Bath.
“As we started getting some wins, the whole thing snowballed and eventually the forwards were much more dominant. The likes of Gareth Chilcott, Roger Spurrell, very uncompromising guys, who never took a backward step.
“Once that started to happen, the Bath back line really began to take off. The likes of David Trick joining, eventually the likes of Simon Halliday, Richard Hill, it was a great time to play for Bath.”
We muse on the beautiful and iconic location that is the Rec - John agrees that it is an unique place to play rugby, appreciated by every generation of player who has enjoyed the opportunity to play here.
The rugby identity at the very core of the City was engendered in that period where Rowell began to achieve success, he argues. I mention that on match day one can see tourists from the world over, unfamiliar with rugby, looking across the river at the posts pointing up above the stands. For a first view of the game, one could hardly wish for a better introduction.
“I think a lot of people who do understand a bit about rugby, when Bath were in their heyday, understand what a very well-known club Bath is,” he says.
“It’s a great place for people to come for the weekend - to watch the rugby and to enjoy the City.
“Most people will agree that it’s the most picturesque ground in the country. It’s just a little bit sad that the situation with developing the ground has been dragging on for a long, long time, but I’m sure that once that gets sorted out then it’ll give the opportunity for many, many more thousands to come and watch the team at Bath.”
Naturally, when talking to such an accomplished and gifted talent as John, an out-and-out ‘running’ fly-half by his own admission - the conversation moves on to today’s cover star, George Ford. Club historian Kevin Coughlan pointed out to me that the young man is perhaps the most natural successor to Horton in terms of his style of play - so what does the great man make of the comparison?
“Yes, I can see that,” he agrees.
“He loves running with the ball, he sets his line going very quickly and today, more than ever, his tactical kicking in the game is superb.
“There’s a great onus now on being able to kick well tactically - George is a great exponent of that.
“He seems a pretty level headed guy. He’s a good professional and I think that once you see the Bath forwards functioning as we all know they can, his game will improve immeasurably. As a fly-half, if you are on the front foot, you have that little bit of extra thinking time. His game will blossom once Bath get on the front foot again.
“I think George has suffered a little bit year because the Bath forwards were not giving him the opportunity to play on the front foot. The whole back line hasn’t functioned as well as we imagined it might do.”
Both men are Grand Slam winners for England in a peculiar piece of symmetry. but George’s pastures are vastly different to those graced by John in the amateur era. Although the role of the fly-half remains pivotal, there is far less time and space to operate, to make those crucial decisions. He explains,
“The one thing when I played, there was always a lot of space. Nowadays, there is no space at all.
“You have to have a lot of guile to break down defences, especially from first phase and that’s why you see a lot of forward orientated games, trying to suck players in and then getting quick ruck ball to move wide. It’s much more of a challenge now to beat opponents defences, basically.”
We muse on the “outstanding” Owen Farrell too, good times for England abound with young talent, versatile too, in the ranks, for posterity.
John, capped 13 times for his country, recalls a couple of fond memories in the Blue, Black and White - one a home win over Wasps here, and another, like last week, at Kingsholm in the 1985 John Player Cup semi-final, won by a single point. He recalls,
“One I do remember was a game against Wasps which was in a quarter-final in the Cup and most people expected them to walk all over us, but that day we played exceptionally well and came out victors. That was the start of everything to set the ball rolling.
“The one I remember more than anything was one of the only times I ever won at Kingsholm, which was in the semi-final of the John Player Cup. That was the most special! On that day, for the forwards to do what they did, dominate the Gloucester pack, and for the backs to play well - that win was very special to me.”
John feels that for the current side to achieve a Champions Cup place next season is not out of the question by any means. He says in closing,
“Playing Saracens will be a massive challenge, but if they get a few wins now and put some pressure on the teams above them, they are still in with a shout to get into Europe.”
Interview by Patrick J.Lennon
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