The last time Bath came to the Aviva Stadium they were beaten 52-27 by a Leinster side which would go on to retain the Heineken Cup three seasons ago. Bath were deplorable, but the team that turns up at the same venue for Saturday's European Champions Cup quarter-final will be incomparable. They are simply an altogether different beast.
The Premiership table shows Bath to be third in the table, a point behind Saracens and a point ahead of Leicester after Sunday’s bonus-point win away to London Welsh, but in truth this scarcely conveys how they have become a major force in English club rugby again.
Although Northampton are well clear of the posse at the top of the table, Bath's strength in depth is as good as any other club in the Premiership, even if in the absence of George Ford, Jonathan Joseph, Dave Attwood, Anthony Watson and David Wilson they lost three successive matches during the Six Nations window to Saracens, Northampton and Exeter. However, they will all return this week after being rested for the London Welsh game.
In discussing Bath's immense forward power on Sunday, the Leinster forwards coach Leo Cullen described the Bath scrum as one of the most dominant in Europe, adding that they have "very good timing of what they do".
Added to this is the inventiveness of Ford, one of the most natural running outhalves around who, like Joseph and Watson, added another dimension to England’s attacking game during the Six Nations. They should also return to Bath’s colours on quite a high after their exploits in that tournament.
Cullen also observed how Bath have a variety of attacking threats, who are very capable of beating opponents one-on-one, which in turn makes them very tricky to defend against.
Backed by the millions of Bruce Craig, this has been something of a breakthrough season for them under their head coach Mike Ford, the former Ireland defence coach and father of the team's outhalf, but it has been three years in the making. They have proven their big-game mentality with some signature wins, notably the 45-0 rout of Leicester at home in September – when admittedly the injury-ravaged Tigers were somewhat toothless – and the 21-11 win at home to Saracens in October.
Their European Champions Cup campaign began with the reality check of a 37-10 beating away to Glasgow and a narrow home loss to Toulouse, but they became the first team to overcome two opening defeats and reach the quarter-finals – and top their group – with four ensuing wins.
The most eye-catching of these was undoubtedly the stunning 35-18 win away to Toulouse in their penultimate match. No game underlines the threat they pose to a sometimes misfiring Leinster this Saturday than that game, when they simply tore the Toulouse defence to shreds.
At one point in the first half, Watson was held up over the line, when a try could have made the score 29-7 to Bath with their eventual bonus point already accrued inside half an hour.
The core of their side have been together for three seasons now, and those wins showed how they have developed the capability of controlling key stages of big games, both at home and away. This has taken them into new territory, for the criticism of them last season was that they were unable to win big games.
This Bath side also possess real variety to their game. Where before they had the backs if not the forward power, now they have the equivalent of two strong packs to choose from and thus they can, as Cullen noted, play the power game up front and possess real impact off the bench. They have strong set-pieces, a strong driving game and are competitive at the breakdown. Ford also has a good kicking game, but what makes them especially dangerous is the running threat of their backs – Ford,
, Joseph, Watson, Semesa Rokoduguni et al, not to mention rugby league recruit
Joseph was outstanding in Toulouse and carried that form into the Six Nations, and Bath probably have the most potent collection of backs of any team in the Premiership.
Hence, they counter-attack better than any team in the Premiership as well. Last week, according to Mike Ford, a half back with Wigan in his playing days, Bath trained for two day’s with Wigan’s rugby league side and concentrated on what he termed “chaos attack”; ie attacking off turnovers or opposition kicks, because “rugby league does it better than anyone”.
Although he cut his teeth as a defensive coach, both with Ireland and England, whom he left after the 2011 World Cup, Ford’s philosophy is to put pressure on his players to prepare professionally from Monday to Friday, but come match-day to then let them off the leash and enjoy themselves.
They are encouraged to have a go from anywhere on the field if they feel it is on, be it quick throws, quick taps or counter-attacks off opposition kicks and turnovers, on the premise that this is when opposing defences are least organised. There have arguably been times when Bath have been too ambitious for their own good, but it has generally served them well, not least in that win away to Toulouse.
Having just missed out on the top four of the Premiership and hence the playoffs last season, they look well placed to atone this season. European Cup champions in 1998, the very nature of their qualification for this quarter-final affords them the opportunity to regard this Saturday’s game as something of a free hit.
Accordingly, Ford has been painting his side as underdogs, noting mantra-like how Leinster will welcome back a dozen of Ireland’s Six Nations winning squad, and vowing that Bath will “have a go”. That, they assuredly will.