Bath’s last match before lockdown was at Exeter where they were fortunate to lose by only 57-20. They return to Sandy Park for Saturday’s play-off semi-final a team transformed thanks to some soul-searching and the arrival in June of the England scrum-half Ben Spencer from Saracens, a player who has provided the missing link.
Bath have lost one match out of nine since the restart, by four points at home to Wasps. While they are the underdogs with Exeter already in the final of the European Champions Cup and bidding to reach Twickenham for a fifth successive year, a team who were sixth in the table at the restart and as close to Leicester in 11th as they were to Sale in second are not short on belief.
“Lockdown definitely helped us,” says the Bath full-back and England wing Anthony Watson, a survivor from their last appearance in the final, against Saracens in 2015, and the team that lost to Northampton in the Challenge Cup final the previous year. “Our focus narrowed and for a lot of the boys it became about what they wanted to get out of rugby.
“It was a matter not so much of the time we had wasted, but the opportunities we had missed for whatever reason. Since the restart we have made the most of our opportunities and have gone in the right direction more quickly than if lockdown had not happened. Neal Hatley has had more time to coach, which has been a factor along with the arrival of Ben Spencer, who has been world-class.
“It is no secret I am desperate to win something with Bath and we have the opportunity to go one step closer.”
The Bath director of rugby, Stuart Hooper, believes lockdown made a difference because the club acted with transparency at a time of turmoil and upheaval, wage cuts, furloughs and redundancies adding to health fears, giving players the chance to say what they felt. It is a view echoed by the club’s captain, Charlie Ewels.
“Before, stress for us was breakfast being five minutes late at Farleigh House,” he says. “We went through real-life adversity as a group, talking about pay, mortgages and the health of family members. It narrowed your focus and made you realise that the things you got hung up on and wasted energy on before were not that important.
“It is about what you want to achieve in life. When everything is taken away from you and then returned bit by bit, you appreciate what it is that is important for you to get a result at the weekend. Under Covid rules, you can only do the bare minimum, whereas before you tried to do everything you could in a week and it did not click in matches. It is never one moment or one day, but the little things that add up.
“Ben Spencer has been brilliant. You can see what he has done on the pitch, but it is the unseen work as well, how good he has been as a leader from Monday to Friday and what he demands from the team, the link between forwards and backs. His kicking game has taken us to another level. I can only say good things about him.”
Bath were the last club Exeter beat after being promoted to the Premiership in 2010. It took them five years and 10 matches to get the better of their West Country rivals, but since then Bath have won three league matches in 11 with one success, back in October, in the past seven.
“Exeter are a consistent team but they are beatable, for sure,” says Hooper. “These opportunities are incredibly hard to come by and the players are excited about it. I am incredibly proud of them and the staff. One defeat in nine games since the lockdown has given us a huge amount of belief that we can go there and win.
“There has been a maturity to our game in the last couple of months that has shone through in difficult moments. The players have been fantastic at living in the moment and what impressed me during the months they were away was the work they did in their homes and garages after dropping their kids at school. It is something that is never seen but makes a huge difference. It blew me away and we came together during a period that was hugely disruptive to people’s lives.
“We know how good Exeter are, but I have no doubt they can be beaten.”