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Interview: Johann van Graan lifts the lid on Bath Rugby's incredible resurgence

BY Jack Tunney  ·  Wednesday Dec 20, 2023

Sitting down with Johann van Graan on a video call despite being just a 20-minute drive from each other seems a little silly really, but it does give an indication of just how busy the rugby world is right now.

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Heading into Christmas, some clubs are desperately trying to strengthen their sides, others are fighting financial insecurity, and some, like Bath Rugby, are pushing hard to extend their impressive start to the season.

Just over 18 months ago, Bath Rugby were in serious trouble on the field. They couldn’t find a win anywhere, and their fans were getting fed up. This was a club that had fallen so far from their European Cup-winning exploits of the late 90’s, that they were no longer recognisable.

Despite currently boasting numerous family members of previous rugby legends, this young side was just struggling to click like those before them. The surnames of Redpath, Ojomoh and De Glanville are all associated with victory back in the amateur era, but until recently the younger generation have not had the same success.

Since Johann van Graan’s arrival, however, the young squad has slowly started to show some real promise. Building week on week, Bath now sit high in second place in the English Premiership and head into this weekend’s game against Harlequins as favourites in front of what is expected to be a fully packed out Recreation Ground.

The Bath coach has spoken to us about the undeniable growth of the squad:

Bath Rugby plans

“This was never going to be something short term, this needs to be long term and you need building blocks, you need the right staff, the right coaching staff, and the right playing group. Last season there were some amazing players that unfortunately are not on the train anymore because I needed something different, and every year is the same, some people will join and some people will leave. The playing group have been incredible in terms of understanding what is expected of them.”

How Bath Rugby have improved

“My job as head of rugby is to make the players better and appoint coaches that can also help improve players; then collectively we go through experiences, ups and downs, ebbs and flows. We know each season won’t be perfect, but we continue learning from the experiences that we have.

“As an example, we were seven points up with the last blow of the game on Saturday evening [Against Cardiff Rugby] and the way that we closed that game out is something that people might miss, but for us, it was important because we were only seven points up and the way we closed that game is a sign of growth for us.”

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CARDIFF, WALES – DECEMBER 16: Ollie Lawrence of Bath Rugby scores their team’s second try whilst under pressure from Cam Winnett of Cardiff Rugby during the Investec Champions Cup match between Cardiff Rugby and Bath Rugby at Cardiff Arms Park on December 16, 2023 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

The Bath Rugby fans

“You’ve got to make people believe in something, and that’s what I said from the start, this is never going to be about me, it’s about the club. I saw such an incredible opportunity with this club in terms of the history, but we can’t keep going back to the history, we’ve got to look forward to what we as a group want to achieve, and we’ve got a clear vision of that.

“At Bath, we have an incredible support base, and I believe that those supporters now believe that we are on the right track. We still have a long way to go, it’s maybe going to take another year or two years or whatever that might be, but there’s a plan, there’s belief in the plan and we’re working hard.”

The mixture of youth and experience in the Bath Rugby squad

“Finn is different, that’s why I brought him in”, Van Graan said when I asked him about the Scotland fly-half’s impact on the younger players in the squad.

“All the players have bought into how we want to do things, and we are writing our own story and it’s about getting better. I’d like to believe that in the 28 weeks that we’ve been together for this season, Orlando [Bailey] has gotten even better and he has brought into the longer-term plan, and so has someone like Sam Harris who I also believe has a massive future. Not everybody can be in the 23 each week, so someone like George Worboys every weekend is turning out for Chinnor and doing his thing, and Raff Western is turning out for BUCS at Bath Uni. So it’s not only about one player, it’s about everybody getting better collectively.

“The day that I leave here I’d like to be able to say it’s in a much better place than I found it. We as a staff, as an owner, as a board have created a place where players can get better, and younger players are absolutely loving it.”

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BATH, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 09: Joe Cokanasiga of Bath dives in to score their first try during the Investec Champions Cup match between Bath and Ulster at the Recreation Ground on December 09, 2023 in Bath, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Clearly understanding the need to create a quality environment that young players in particular can thrive in, Van Graan would later tell me: “Look around what’s happening in the world, you never know what’s going to happen next. So as I always say, enjoy every day of your life because it’s later than you might think”.

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