“Coming to Bath was the best move I ever made in my career.”
So says Kevin Maggs, 70-times capped Ireland international, who arrived to Bath in 1998 following his first summer tour to South Africa with Ireland.
At the advent of the new era, many clubs were struggling to cope with the new found pressures of sporting enterprise, as rugby took the first teetering steps in its professional infancy.
Kevin had returned to Bristol, and says he absent-mindedly checked his bank balance, and was bemused to find that he hadn’t been paid. Little did he know that matters were far more serious than he had first realised, and he’d be looking for a new job.
Not that the burly line-busting centre was short of offers! He takes up the tale,
“I'd just come back from South Africa with Ireland in ’98 and I'd not long signed a new deal with Bristol. I noticed I hadn't been paid since - I just thought my details were wrong or whatever or they didn't pay me in time or there was a mix up in the contracts.
“Then I went into the club on Monday after I got back on the Sunday night and the receivers had been called in! I was lucky in a lot of regards because Bath had inquired about me when I played in the Tests in South Africa. It was my first senior tour at that point.
“Obviously when I found out that I was going to be made redundant, I got on the phone and went and met Andy Robinson and I knew instantly where I was going to be going.”
On arrival, Kevin contends that he knew “within a week” that he’d found a long term home:
“I could tell why Bath had been beating Bristol for the last ten or fifteen years!” he laughs.
“The gulf in the way the club was run, the culture, the environment, the training. Just everything about it was unbelievably professional compared to Bristol at the time, which is quite sad really.”
And Kevin wasn’t short of offers. The arm-twisting from across the Irish sea had been in full effect, that he should relocate for the sake of his flowering international career. But the burly twelve said that the level of competition in the Bath squad the opportunity to learn the game from the very best in his position, and to vie with them for a place was intoxicating - a chance he relished.
“I turned down offers to go to Ireland and everything else. I sort of had my arm twisted, I probably wouldn't play for Ireland again and that sort of stuff, if I didn't go to Ireland,” he recalls.
“Andy Robinson said to me about not being guaranteed to play for Bath. I wasn't guaranteed to play by any means because of Phil de Glanville and Jeremy Guscott obviously. I knew I'd have my work cut out to try and get in the side in the first place.”
The coach wanted a physical edge in the midfield to complement the silky skills of his incumbents - and Kevin saw the opportunity to develop as a midfield specialist in an exciting team.
Bath had earned the right to utilise the skills of Guscott, de Glanville and the finishing power of Iain Balshaw and Matt Perry from behind, with a reputation for a hard edge in the pack, and Kevin says that a basic principle of the game was paramount. Simple go-forward, an aspect in which he was to become one of the game’s finest exponents in the following seasons. He muses,
“People forget to realise that to play any game you want to play, you can have whatever philosophy you want in terms of how you want to play the game, but you have to go forward and I'd like to think I was pretty good at that.
“In hindsight, I think I was brought into some teams to do that. To organise the defence and be a threat to defences. To be able to fix defenders and create space for other players.”
And there it is, the perfect anchor from which to launch a discussion on the challenges facing the modern players in the midfield. If there is a prized commodity on the field of play in the modern incarnation of rugby union, it is space. There’s just doesn’t seem to be any of it to the naked eye.
It’s why the likes of Jonathan Joseph, Kyle Eastmond and Anthony Watson are so thrilling to spectators, whatever their parochial persuasion.
Kevin built a fearsome reputation for line-busting up the inside centre channel, but to say that his direct and uncompromising approach was the sum total of his arsenal would be doing the current head coach of Moseley a disservice.
Kevin possessed the full array of attacking guile and deft hands - nowhere better demonstrated than in his instrumental role in the most famous Irish hat-trick of all time, scored by the great, but then very young, Brian O’Driscoll in the Stade de France in the 2000 Six Nations.
What then does he think of the job that the centres have in the modern game?
“Well, there's very little space, there's probably a lot less because of the rugby league defensive strategies these days,” he begins.
“There's a big emphasis on defence and the kicking game, like Saracens for the last few years. But it can win you things. Certainly defence does win games to a certain extent, but you still need to be able to have that flair and attack - put people like Jonathan Joseph, or in my time, Iain Balshaw or Matt Perry away!”
Kevin credits one Bath legend in particular as a pleasure to play alongside - Mike Catt - and is fulsome in his praise for the great number ten. He says warmly,
“I had a fantastic time playing alongside Mike. He was so great to play with because he was always a threat to the gain line, therefore he made my job a hell of a lot easier because nine times out of ten, he put me on the gain line, and then I'd try and get us across it. Then we could go forward, get quick ball and play some attacking rugby, which is what we all want to play.”
We close in collective reverie with a discussion of the value of this wonderful and iconic location for rugby, the Rec. The social element, so vital to the values of the sport, and a team ethos is alive and kicking here in the City.
Kevin, like anyone with the Blue, Black and White running through his veins, yearns for this place to be developed to the highest modern standards so generations to come can enjoy this unique experience of watching rugby and making friends here.
“Yeah, obviously to a certain extent we had a great bunch of guys and a great team spirit, we’d go out a lot together and coming back from away trips to the City, we'd never turn down a fridgeful!” he laughs.
“At the end of the day, it's what the game has been built on and I think sometimes now, you forget all that. And I think for me it's a massive part of it. It's crucial to keep it alive, I believe the social side of it is what the team environment thrives on.
“The Rec is fantastic, it just frustrates me more than anything. It's such a brilliant place to play and I just wish they'd let everyone develop it. It would benefit the whole community, it would benefit Bath in general and the amount of money it brings into the City anyway - I mean it's just so frustrating for me really. It just deserves so much more.”
Efforts are of course afoot to secure that legacy, so let’s hope the team can put on a show this afternoon and build real foundations of their own for the future on the pitch, as well as the Club doing so off it.
Interview by Patrick J.Lennon
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