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Tony Swift - Tales from The Legends

Tales from the Legends is part of our 150th Anniversary celebration.

 

Legendary winger Tony Swift recalls a potent blend of grace and grit which saw the Club launch into its most successful era in history.

The day was a sunny Saturday May 6 1995, the venue, the venerable Headquarters of English rugby at Twickenham.

The occasion the Pilkington Cup final, to be contested between Bath Rugby and Wasps, old adversaries of the domestic game.

Everyone loves a final, relatively few clubs ever get to experience them after all - but this particular day for those bearing Blue, Black and White had a special significance, in that it marked the end of a cherished career of one of the club’s greatest servants.

Wearing 15, as was the custom in those days, no Jonathan Joseph bearing 13 worrying the superstitious among us, was a gentleman called Tony Swift on the right wing.

This was the 242nd time that Tony had worn the shirt since his arrival from Swansea in 1985. A fitting finish was in order - not in the least because Tony had crossed the whitewash for Bath an eye watering 160 times during his career, and the counter was about to click round one last time.

On 51 minutes, captain Phil de Glanville had brilliantly and bravely contested a garryowen on the edge of the Wasps 22 and won an attacking scrum in front of the posts. A quick peel to the right via John Callard and the ball found its way to Tony on the right flank.

Defending wing Nick Greenstock had stayed a few yards deep - to be fair to him, he was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t with the set piece in centre field. The extra few metres between him and his man was all Swift needed.

A lightning step off his right foot left his opposite number in no man’s land, and Tony gave it one more for luck leaving fullback John Ufton wrong footed, and in fact putting in an unfortunate tackle on his own scrum half, Steve Bates, as he dived despairingly, but couldn’t lay a hand on Swift, who catered home and raised his arms aloft in delight.

Try 161 was in the books. It was also the 27th time he had crossed the line in Cup competition, a record at the time, which stands to this day for domestic cup competition in the amateur era. The Cup was also Bath’s, as the easy conversion made it 27-11.

What is perhaps most telling about that sun-kissed footage watching today, is that a bare three or four minutes later, Wasps attacked up their left, a grubber was sent in behind the line, and Swift, leaving laurels and sweet repose to the Romans who founded the city in which we stand today, beat both Ufton and Greenstock to the ball to dot down and prevent a certain try.

At the time, I saw the contribution I had to make as twofold,” Swift recalls, kindly giving of his time for interview as he waited in Dublin airport last weekend.

Stopping my guy scoring and then simplistically helping the team by scoring as many tries as I possibly could. And obviously trying to make a contribution to the rest of the game!

Clearly if you're a winger and you're not scoring tries, even in today's game, then you've got a problem. For me, I suppose the key was not just to score the odd fantastic try - it was to get the simple ones as often as you could and make sure you kept the scoreboard ticking over.

“I felt a responsibility to the rest of my team to do that for them.”

Swift arrived in 1985 actually considering a move back north to Sale from south Wales, having started his career up at Fylde with the great Bill Beaumont and moved down to attend Cardiff University.

David Robson rang me and said ‘How about coming?’. I went down to meet him and looked at Bath and just went 'This looks far more attractive than Preston’, so the decision was made really quickly!!” he says with a smile.

At the time, even though he had won six England caps between 1981 and 1984, that he didn’t consider himself the finished article by any means, and credits playing at Bath with allowing him to fully flourish as a player.

I had a bit of talent,” he muses. “I do think that I turned up as a fairly average rugby player.

Playing with the players as I did, effectively, their mental toughness had started to rub off on me so it sort of rounded me off as a player.

I think it took me about two years playing with the Bath guys, and then suddenly I felt so much more confident about my own ability to play the game. There’s no doubt that that was due not to myself, but to the people I was playing with on a regular basis.”

It is humbling to hear Tony’s modesty about a career fondly remembered by all who saw him play over 17 years in full, and a decade at the Rec.

He contends that Jack Rowell had created an unique and competitive atmosphere at the Club, which meant that players had high expectations of each other - there was no better place for a rugby player to ply their trade, not that it was a professional occupation then, than Bath, and everyone knew it.

I used to play for quite a successful Swansea team with some great players, but the winning culture at Bath shocked me,” admits Tony.

It was so different to any other club I'd played for. The winning culture was everything at the club. That really shocked me in the first six to nine months, so if you call that professional, I don't know what the right word is, but certainly in terms of a winning culture, it was there in bucketfuls.

“You knew that if you didn't perform, you'd be out and if you're out of Bath Rugby Club, there was nowhere better to go. So you were desperate to be part of the whole thing. You didn't leave Bath Rugby Club unless you had to, because there was nowhere better to go.”

We consider the formidable reputation of the side, particularly for visitors to Bath. Tony readily agrees that the stellar cast in the golden era were a tough proposition for opponents, and a pleasure to play alongside. He continues,

I think we were fortunate enough that in the amateur days, the last thing you want to do is visit the Rec and have to prop or play against Gareth Chilcott or John Hall, or these other guys, because they weren't going to make it easy or a pleasant day for you.

That abrasiveness was a critical element of the team we had at the time. We managed to mix the abrasiveness with some talent and I think that worked really well for us.

“In terms of the players that were in the Bath team regularly, I genuinely have huge respect for all of them. Because to be so successful in that era for so long, you had to have good players in every position. There wasn't a real weakness in the side anywhere and it was such a pleasure playing every week with those types of guys.

“You could get on with your game and you weren't at all worried about anyone you were playing with because they were all stunningly effective players for that era.”

One position in the modern game which has changed aesthetically is that of the winger - since the late great Jonah Lomu changed our game, wing men have become huge, at face value, but it’s by no means a given that they have to tip the scales at 18 stone.

Julian Savea of New Zealand was the top try scorer in the Rugby World Cup, but compatriot Nehe Milner Skudder and Argentina’s Santiago Cordero were for many, the players of the tournament.

Tony elaborates,

I think even today though, whilst the game is obviously different, I still believe you want your wingers scoring as many tries as they possibly can. The way that the whole game has evolved, when I started playing I was twelve and a half stone and when I finished, I was fifteen stone.

“You had to get bigger and bigger as the game evolved then. And clearly the game is continuing to evolve from when I finished. So the wingers are big guys, strong guys, but a winger is in the position often to be the try scorer and I wouldn't want wingers in my team who couldn't score a few tries.”

He recalls Mr Rowell pinpointing a particular aspect of his game at the other end of the field. Tony concludes,

“I don't ever think I was actually regarded as a big tackler or a big physical defender or anything, but my job was to stop people scoring, so that's what I tried to do.

“I remember Jack once saying to me, and he looked at me with a bit of shock on his face, and he said 'I've finally worked it out, Tony, how you managed to defend without ever having to tackle.'

“So I said, ‘Yeah Jack and it's taken you eight years to do that.'"

Interview by Patrick J.Lennon

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