Learning how Johann van Graan will be taking Bath from ‘zero’ this season

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Finishing rock bottom of the Gallagher Premiership last season, it has been a summer of change for Bath Rugby as they look to rebuild following a dismal 2021/22 campaign.

One of England’s grandest old clubs, a powerhouse in the 1990s, the Blue, Black and White conceded 107 tries as they crumbled to the foot of the top-flight.

In years gone by, their demise would have led to relegation and partway through their difficult season, the club announced that there would be great change on the way at the Rec.

This included the impending arrival of Johann van Graan as head coach from Munster, as well as the appointment of JP Ferreira as defence coach and former Bath playmaker Joe Maddock as attack coach.

Neal Hatley and Luke Charteris remain in the backroom staff with the former demoted to forwards coach, while the latter remains in control of the lineout. Stuart Hooper also stays in Somerset, the former club captain taking on the role of General Manager.

At 42 years old, Van Graan already has an impressive rugby CV behind him. Having never played at the highest level, he began as a technical adviser for the Blue Bulls, graduating to be their forwards coach, then following the same pattern across five years with South Africa.

Leaving the Springboks in 2017 to take charge of Munster, in his five years with the province Van Graan took his side to three consecutive PRO14 semi-finals and finished as runners-up in the 2020/21 season.

His tenure at Thomond Park ended with a quarter-final loss to Ulster in the inaugural United Rugby Championship season. Graham Rowntree has taken over from the South African this summer, but Van Graan is now hoping to continue his knack of making play-off rugby with Bath.

Forging a career in some of the most high pressure rugby environments that the world has to offer, he says he is used to the expectation, especially with one of the game’s most historic sides.

“I was privileged to be involved with the Bulls for nine years – a province in South Africa I love and respect, and grew up in,” Van Graan said. “They were formed in 1938, in Blue Bull country, the old Northern Transvaal.

“We built ourselves up to being successful in Super Rugby. That journey had difficult times but led to some incredible times.

“I was part of the Springboks setup, the biggest honour I’ve had in rugby. You do that in the pressure of Test match rugby because you want it, love it and embrace it. You don’t do it because you have to.

“Munster brought incredible expectation. One of the genuine powerhouses of European rugby, and I embraced that. The reason I came here is because I believe I can make a difference, and I’m looking forward to the journey.”

His summer has been spent moving onto the grounds of Bath’s training facility, Farleigh House. He met his squad on July 11th before heading back to South Africa to see family and friends, as well as watching each of the South Africa vs All Blacks Tests in the flesh.

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When you first visit Bath's training ground, it is hard to see the country home as anything other than a façade in recent times, something which plastered over the cracks of a team with little to no confidence and behind the scenes issues.

“I can’t comment on last season,” Van Graan said. “I was at Munster. The most important thing is to put the past behind us, start on zero and look forward.

“Vision is important to me – you’ve got to know where you’re going. It takes time. The board have decided I’m the right guy to lead, and I’m very comfortable with that.”

Amongst all the comings and goings, Van Graan has made a number of changes to Farleigh House. This includes the modernisation of the gym facilities, with new equipment and moving the academy changing rooms next to the senior players so as to reduce the divide between the two.

Other areas of the campus have also had a facelift, including the teams’ meeting space, with some work still due to take place in the weeks to come. It is all part of taking everything at Bath Rugby to the next level, and to compete at the top of the Premiership table once more.

“We are in performance sport and as a coach, you can talk about change but it is important the players see it and feel it,” Van Graan said. “I recommended changes to the board to make to the team room, medical, where we gym, where we eat are all improvements. You are looking at small margins and that was one of the first things I saw. We have got to improve our performance environment.

“It is important everyone is on the same level. If you are between the four white lines, there are no questions asked about what is your age, what type of contract do you have, where are you from? It is me and you against the opposition. Whether you are a scholar or been here 15 years, we are all on one level.”

A closer look at the changes at the Rec and you see part of what Van Graan is trying to create. He has recruited astutely from other Premiership clubs by bringing back Dave Attwood, along with England international Piers Francis and former Worcester Warriors hooker Niall Annett, as well as adding a series of established names in the form of Quinn Roux, GJ van Velze and Chris Cloete.

Also promoting promising youngsters Orlando Bailey, Max Ojomoh and Ewan Richards to the senior playing squad, there is much cause to be optimistic. It is also a chance for the squad to cleanse itself of that image of being too wrapped up in the past, the memory of the glories in years gone by maybe too prevalent as the club has moved forward in the professional era.

“Something I’m going to be continuous on is the connection between the club, community and city,” Van Graan said. “We had a dinner with the supporters’ club last week, which was fascinating to meet some of the lifelong supporters of Bath, people who have been there when Bath won the European Cup and some of their successes in the 1990s. We want to bring them on our journey with us, respecting the past but really looking ahead.

“This city bleeds rugby. The fans want to see their team perform. One message that came through loud and clear is that they respect performance. Bath supporters know your team won’t always win, but they want to see that effort on the pitch. We’ve got to become tough to beat – that’s what out supporters will respect.”

Coming with Van Graan from Limerick is JP Ferreira. At 39, the South African has developed a reputation for coaching a staunch and unwavering defence. This style began at the Lions but has now made its way to Bath.

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If you are honest, it was possibly defence where Bath needed the most improvement. Having had over a month to get his new players up to speed, with internationals also trickling in after their exploits this summer, the first opportunities to present what has been learnt aren’t far away at all.

Playing Coventry this weekend before making their way to Jersey Reds, the former Bridgend player says that these coming weekends will offer plenty of insight as to how the group is progressing.

“I think first and foremost is the structures I put in place on the defensive side,” Ferreria said. “If I can get the boys to really imprint what we have been doing the last four, five weeks, that will be brilliant.

“If I can get that, then obviously we can build on stuff. It is not going to all go to plan. There is going to be some lapses here and there. It is then for us to fix it up. That’s what warm-up games are about.

“We have become good at defending one another. We know the plays we are going to run, we know what each other is going to do on the attacking side and on the defensive side. It will be good to face another opposition and then see how far we have come in these five weeks.”

Among the new faces at Farleigh House, Van Graan has also introduced a new head of their athletic performance department, medical services, a lead performance nutritionist and a mind coach.

Whilst seemingly small things, it means the players are preparing for their rugby differently too. Improving fitness and health are not necessarily rugby things, but through being in better physical condition can lead to better performances across the board, something that according to Ferreira has been bought into wholeheartedly by the players.

“It has been a massive focus for us, it’s the second 40 that has let us down [in the past],” Ferreira said. “The boys are putting in the hard work. Alex Martin [Athletic Performance Department lead] has done a great job with his staff, and to implement that, and to give us a proper base to work off.

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“Sarah Jenner [Lead Performance Nutritionist] has come in and she is doing the nutrition. The boys have lost a lot on their skins [skinfolds] as well. The whole group has lost, which is a positive.

“The one thing you have to understand is there is change. The boys want to change, which is a great thing. It is not this group of guys want to change that group of guys. This whole squad, it is such a good squad that they all want change, they all want to do it for the better.

“Like I said in my start-up interview, Bath is a great club and we have got to put it back on the pedestal but it is these boys week in, week out that are going to be putting in the effort to put them there. They really want to.”

Starting “on zero”, the South African coaching duo are both clear in their assessment that all of this will take time. For periods of last year, playing Bath felt as though it would be five points for whoever their opposition was. Even just to change that narrative in year one of the project would be a success.

Continually repeating their message that they will “become a tough team to beat”, this honesty both soothes and underpins exactly the challenge the new regime has walked into.

Still, there are questions to be answered. Who starts at fly-half is always going to be a big one. Orlando Bailey is the obvious chouse, but Van Graan will not rule out the possibility of Piers Francis starting in that position.

Eddie Jones was in the West Country on Tuesday afternoon, both watching on as a new era began, whilst catching up with former colleagues in the form of Hatley and the clutch of players that have been heavily involved with his England squad in recent times.

What the future holds at this moment is anyone’s guess. However, upon meeting those charged with taking Bath forward, there is little reason not to have renewed optimism.

Starting their Premiership season beneath the Friday night lights at Ashton Gate against Bristol Bears, the new era will begin then. From zero.