Bath Rugby Union Club is one of the stalwarts of British rugby: one of the oldest clubs with one of the most impressive records. Founded in 1865, the club continue to play at their ‘Recreation Ground’ in Bath, and they wear blue and black at home, blue and white when away. Since the 1980s, Bath’s achievements have been setting many of the records that other clubs follow, and their spectacular victories in tournaments and the Premier League in the 1980s and 1990s have been highlights of their long and chequered history.
Bath Rugby Club was officially founded in 1865, a semi-professional club playing against other teams from the South of England. By the 1890s Welsh rugby was beginning to kick off on an international stage, and Bath became one of the first English teams to play against the burgeoning clubs such as Cardiff and Penarth. By the end of the century, after some years moving from ground to ground, Bath consolidated their club with the establishment of their own stadium, ‘The Recreation Ground’, on land bought near Bath city centre. However, the club had no major success in the early days, but slogged their way through the seasons for nearly a century before really moving towards establishing the professional team they were to become.
In 1954 the quad embarked on their first overseas tour, a succession of resounding victories in France, which was repeated the next year with similar successes.
In the 1960s they stepped up the pace with the recruitment of a squad of huge, powerful men, captained by Peter Sibley, who showed his boys a game that relied on aggression and speed. This style took Bath to victory again and again and their reputation grew over the next few years, even outstripping the Welsh clubs in many games.
In 1978 a new coach, Jack Rowell, arrived and under his direction, the club was to take a new turn. Rowell managed the team with a businesslike professionalism that was not yet typical in the rugby world. In the 1980s, as national competitions started to become formalised, Rowell mirrored contemporary football clubs by opening up player recruitment so that his new players were coming from all over the world, rather than predominantly from the South of England.
Rowell also planned a more tactical approach to the game, balancing the team’s powerful players with slighter, nimble men. His tactics soon paid off, and Rowell’s team stormed the John Player Special Cup, later known as the Pilkington Cup, in 1984. They took the cup for four consecutive years from 1984 to 1987 inclusive, and resumed their run after narrowly missing out in 1988 to take it again.
The 1988-9 season was to be the breakthrough year for Bath. The Rugby Premier League had been officially established in 1986, and Bath were in the running to be one of the league’s dominant players. They finally took the title for the 1988-9 season, losing only one match in the season, and taking the Player Cup that year too. This made them the first team to achieve the Grand Slam of the ‘double’ titles.
Bath won the league again in 1991, and this win was to be the start of a spectacular run of four consecutive league victories. After missing out on the cup at the end of the 1994-5 season, they took it again in 1996. Four of these wins were paralleled by wins in the Player/Pilkington Cup, a run of ‘doubles’ which has yet to be bettered by another club.
The 1993-4 season saw Bath’s winning streak grow. They swept up at tournament after tournament, winning the league, the Pilkington, the Middlesex Sevens and the Worthington Tens.
In May of 1996 they broke another record by playing Wigan at both codes – the first teams to do so. Wigan won the first match, 82-6, at Maine Road, Manchester, but Bath pulled back to respectable victory in the second game with a 44-19 win at Twickenham.
After the glory years
In 1995, Rowell left the club to coach the England rugby team. Over a decade on, Bath has yet to reach the level of stability or success it attained with apparent ease under Rowell. In 1998, Bath managed to become the first English club to win the prestigious Heineken Cup, but despite this international success, they were sinking in the domestic league. By the end of the 2002-3 season, they were tipped for relegation, which they missed by a hair’s breadth, and within the club, financial difficulties and managerial disputes meant that a merger with rival club Bristol seemed on the cards.
However, Bath narrowly escaped this too, and in 2003, the club invested in new players to bring some life into the club. John Connolly was the new head coach and he took the team back to the top – just one season after plummeting to the relegation zone, Bath were back fighting for the top spot in the league, which they just missed out on. At the end of the next season in 2005 they made it to a respectable fourth place. They also made it to the finals of the Powergen Cup, where they lost to Leeds, but things looked bad when Connolly announced his return to his native Australia that year.
In November 2005 his replacement was announced: ex-England Academy Manager – and former Bath coach – Brian Ashton.
However, Ashton did not stick around for long – throughout his six-month long tenure at Bath, rumours were rife that he would return to coach England, and these were confirmed in May 2006 when he definitively left Bath to coach the England team. Most of his coaching team went elsewhere soon after, and Backs Coach Steve Meehan was installed as caretaker head coach. Bath made it to the Semi-finals of the Heineken Cup that year after an aggressive, controversial win over Leicester in the Quarter-finals, but they were eventually bested by Biarritz. In 2006 they ranked a modest 9th in the league, and with the departure of much of the coaching team and a general lack of spectacular play, Bath’s future looked uncertain. Worries were compounded when the RFU announced that all Premier League Clubs would need 15,000-capacity stadiums by 2010. This required massive expansion from the current stadium (10,000 capacity) which the Recreation Ground may not be able to accommodate and the club may not be able to finance. However, appeals to charities and supporters for funding look hopeful, and the club even plans to raise funds to draft in some new players to relieve the ailing club’s fortunes.
- Courage League/Zurich Premiership (1989, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1996, 2004)
- John Player Cup/Pilkington Cup (1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1989, 1990, 1992, 1994, 1995, 1996)
- Heineken Cup (1998)
- Greatest Victory – 76-13 vs. London Scottish (15 May 1999)
- Worst Defeat: 12-68 vs. Gloucester (4 May 2002)
- Player with most international caps: Iuan Evans (72 caps for Wales)
- Most tries scored in a match: 12 vs. London Scottish (15 May 1999)
- Most tries conceded in a match: 9 vs. Gloucester (4 May 2002)
- Most tries scored by a single player: 37 by Iain Balshaw
- Top Drop Goal Scorer: 5 Chris Malone
- Top Penalty Scorer: 120 Olly Barkley
- Top Points Scorer: 494 Olly Barkley
Contact information for the club office, the press office, the ground and ticket office – via post, telephone, email and fax – are all available on the club’s contact information page
Trains and coaches run to Bath frequently from throughout the UK. The stadium is in the centre of town, five minutes’ walk from the train and bus stations. Fans arriving from elsewhere in the UK sometimes organise car-shares. Offers can often be found on fan forums and webzines.
There is a map online, and the club itself issues directions, information and details of coach services on its travel information page.
Buy tickets at the online ticket office
Telephone box office: 0871 721 1865