Steve Ojomoh recalls some special times at the Club, fuelled by an unshakeable will to win.
Anyone of a Bath Rugby persuasion will naturally look back at the period of success in the 1990s with a pair of rose-tinted spectacles on the bridge of their nose.
It is often said in professional sport that it’s hard to get to the top of the pile, but even harder to stay there, and the astonishing haul of silverware during that golden period is a testament to the character and self-belief of a rare group of players.
One of those men was back row line buster Steve Ojomoh, a talismanic and inspirational figure, capped by England 12 times including four games at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa, who proudly bore the Blue, Black and White during that iconic era.
An affable and engaging figure, Steve speaks with enormous pride about the ten trophies harvested in his time with the Club, and says the remarkable haul was indicative of a culture of success which one could not find elsewhere in the domestic game.
Steve attended the West Buckland School in North Devon, alongside Bath great Victor Ubogu and Olympic champion triple jumper Jonathan Edwards, and enjoyed a fine run of representative age grade rugby with England, before taking his bow at Bath Rugby as a young man fresh from international duty.
He was to get a rude awakening, and particularly in terms of the dress code, he reveals today.
“The first day I arrived at Bath, I had just played England Schools or England Colts,” he begins. “In those days, you had these old purple tracksuits - which you were very proud to wear. I don’t know if anyone remembers them! Purple from top to bottom.
“They marked you out as an elite player. I’d played England Schools, played England Colts, won everything, so this is how I turned up to the first training session.
“It was David Trick, I think. He stopped me and said ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ I said ‘What?’ And he said ‘Have a look around. England, England A, England, England… Son, don’t come here in that again.’
“That stayed with me for a long time. Even now in my forties, we have suitcases full of stuff from back then, and I still feel funny about wearing them!
“It taught me to be humble. Little things like that.”
Making your way in a Bath team peppered with international stars is one thing, but how about doing it in a back row with the likes of Andy Robinson, Richard Hill, John Hall, David Egerton?
The expectation was razor sharp - yes, coach Jack Rowell led from the front in terms of engendering an edge, but the expectation that the players had of themselves was equally as exacting, Steve says.
Even in terms of affecting your social life as a young man in Bath, he reveals!
“The big nightclub in Bath at the time was the Island Club, in the old public toilet. That was run by Roger Spurrell - he possibly started the whole thing, he was two or three years into retirement at that time.
“Normally, the first teamers wouldn’t pay to go in, but some of the younger ones like myself, depending on what type of game I had: if I had a decent game I could go in for free. If I hadn’t played well, I wasn’t allowed in. I couldn’t even pay and go in!
“That tells you what the Club was built on.”
We muse on the ‘good enough for England, not good enough for Bath’ mantra of the time. Steve says it was absolutely true.
Steve singles out Nigel Redman, our last interviewee on these pages, for particular praise - “an unassuming, quiet guy, so resilient, but had the highest pain threshold I’ve ever come across”; Tony Swift “ran very good lines - a very clever player”; Stuart Barnes “was the brains of the team.”
It’s a stellar cast, without question. But Steve contends that the spirit within the team was what marked out that great Bath side, their high demands of each other. Everyone was kept on their toes at all times.
“I had a part to play in that machine. My job was to go forward with the ball or without the ball. You’d say the same with Victor (Ubogu) or Ben Clarke. Stuart would be the dictator, and how can I put it, the cherry on the top would be Jerry Guscott!” he says with a smile.
“I’d turn up for a game and the coach would ask you ‘What are you doing here?’ And you’d be shocked, thinking ‘I’m meant to be playing!’ They were testing your mettle. That was Bath.
“I remember playing in game once, and you know sometimes in front of 7,000 people there is a time when it all goes quiet. I hear this voice roar out: “OJO! Either do something or come off!”
That was Jack Rowell. Everybody heard it. But that was what I needed!”
The team being the sum of all parts might be a cliché, but Steve argues that everyone in the side knew their role. Basic execution, earning the right to release the likes of Guscott and Swift, was the order of the day, he says,
“I couldn’t have thrown a forty-yard pass, or a sidestep, but nor could some of my colleagues!
“Jerry on the other hand, spent his time avoiding big collisions, looking for the half gaps. Swifty - as good a player as he was, every time you saw a Fijian on the pitch it was a different thing! He looked for holes.
“There was certainly a freedom to play. They have the saying now that you have to earn the right to go wide, for example. If you go side to side it’s easy to defend. People must remember that it was still an amateur sport in those days so we weren’t proficient in all the aspects of the game.
“With the players we had, we could express ourselves, yes. But for that to happen, things needed to happen: the scrum needs to go forward; we were never the greatest lineout side, but we found a way. When you are going forward, on the front foot, these things become easier.”
Steve fondly remembers the 1992 cup final, his first for the Club, won so dramatically by Stuart Barnes’ last minute drop goal. He recalls a few minutes before that crescendo as being the perfect example of why Bath were able to maintain that success. He expands,
“I remember in my first cup final, the Quins one in 1992. In the last ten minutes, I recall Richard Hill, who’d been playing for years and years, slapping me on the back and begging me to chase that next kick to charge it down. One sprint he said, begging me.
“And if you look at the video I stopped that drop kick from David Pears at the time, which went wide. And of course the next thing was Stuart Barnes dropping his goal and the rest is history.
“But this is a guy who had won what? Four or five cup finals before that? Literally pleading with me, “I need you to sprint!” That never say die attitude, that will to win. I might not have gone that extra five metres had he not pleaded with me, and bear in mind that that was at the end of the game, close to extra time.”
Steve played much of his rugby at number eight, but was proficient across the back row, as was the case in an era when the specialism of the professional game had not quite taken hold. He agrees that the modern openside flanker is something of a celebrity in rugby teams these days.
We chew over the physical attributes - long back, long arms, short legs which are key in ‘jackaling’ - winning turnover ball, the yardstick by which most great sevens are measured these days. Australia are a fine example and play two such men in David Pocock and Michael Hooper - Scott Fardy alongside them.
“It’s all about balance, that has never changed. You have a strong ball carrying eigh, and your fetchers, your workers, but now there’s no difference between and six and a seveb now. They call it six and a half!” says Steve.
“They have short legs, a long back and it’s all about trying to disrupt that ball and win as many turnovers as possible.”
Steve says that his fondest memories at the Rec came from the family ethos of the Club, cherished moments after matches when fans and players would take to the hallowed turf. Rugby is at the heart of the City, and was nowhere better demonstrated than on those sun-kissed afternoons.
“It was a family club. The days when you finished playing and there was another game afterwards - playing touch with Andy Robinson’s kids with all the other players!
“You could have a good old drink, in the summer months you’d spill out onto the pitch and the kids would be creating their own Bath game afterwards. Those memories will always be special for me, there was many a great night here.”
And on big days like in ’92, there was a special treat. He laughs,
“After the cup wins were the best: coming back to Bath to celebrate and the whole weekend was a big blur. The best thing about it was you’d get to help yourself to Jack Rowell’s wine cellar. It didn’t get opened that often!”
“Winning is a habit, losing is the same thing. Creating that winning environment is key.
“There were times in our day, when the sun was out, when Audley Lumsden would look at the weather and say ’50 today boys’ - and you wouldn’t disagree with him!
“Sometimes you’d be a score down, three points down, and you knew that you would engineer a position to win. You make your own luck. These guys trained hard.
“Success bred success. Young players wanted to come down to Bath.”
Steve’s nursery businesses are going strong, and his Trowbridge RFC side are negotiating their way out of a bout of ‘second season syndrome’. But life is good for Ojomoh, everyone at the Rec will be pleased to read this evening.
“I feel lucky,” he simply says in closing. “I’m blessed.”
Interview by Patrick J.Lennon
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