Johann van Graan: Bath exactly where they should be after years of hard graft

The West Country club are bidding to land a first Gallagher Premiership title.

Bath’s fortunes have been transformed under head of rugby Johann van Graan
Bath’s fortunes have been transformed under head of rugby Johann van Graan (Ben Whitley/PA)

Bath will face Northampton at Twickenham on Saturday after being transformed from Gallagher Premiership no-hopers to title contenders in under two years.

South African Johann van Graan has overseen a remarkable revival since starting the task of waking a sleeping giant in July 2022.

When he arrived at the Recreation Ground from Munster that summer, Bath could not sink any lower, having propped up a then 13-club Premiership after winning just five of their 24 games during the 2021-22 campaign.

Johann van Graan has made a major impact since taking charge at Bath
Johann van Graan has made a major impact since taking charge at Bath (Ben Whitley/PA)

But Bath are now back on English domestic rugby’s biggest stage following a nine-year absence, seeking a first Premiership crown that would end their 16-year wait for major trophy honours.

It is all a far cry from the pre-Premiership era – Bath won six league titles in nine seasons between 1987 and 1996 – yet provides glowing evidence of the impact Van Graan has made.

“We are very respectful of the history and the heritage of Bath Rugby, and that is why a lot of us came to the club,” head of rugby Van Graan said.

“It is because of the history and what it represents. For us as a group we respect our past, but this is about this group.

“Since we started on July 11, 2022, we have focused on what we need to do – becoming tough to beat, putting the pride into our jersey and then getting better.

“Since we started in week one, the message has been to treat every week the exact same – never too high, never too low – and to start every week on zero and get better.

“After 18 (Premiership) rounds, we said we would see where we are. That got us into a home semi-final, which we treated as a one-off game, and now we are in the final.

“So, you can never predict, but we are exactly where we should be, and all credit to the players and the staff that have worked incredibly hard to put us in this position.

“There is one game remaining, and two very good teams are going to compete in it.”

Van Graan has named an unchanged matchday 23 from the Sale clash, while Saints boss Phil Dowson also says same again after his team knocked out Saracens, with Courtney Lawes captaining on his final Northampton appearance before joining French club Brive.

Unlike Bath, Northampton know what it feels like to be Premiership champions, having lifted the trophy in 2014 following an extra-time victory over Saracens.

They topped the table after an 18-game regular season, and Saints are favourites with the bookmakers to keep Bath waiting for that first Premiership triumph.

Phil Dowson has masterminded Northampton’s Premiership title bid
Phil Dowson has masterminded Northampton’s Premiership title bid (Joe Giddens/PA)

Northampton rugby director Phil Dowson said: “There are clearly elements of our game that we need to get right in regards to Bath, but there is also the fact we are playing in the final and how do you manage that.

“Anticipation, nervousness, pressure, all those elements are part of it, and that is something we have talked about.

“We’ve also had an experience of playing at Twickenham earlier this season (against Harlequins) when we didn’t quite get it right, and playing against Leinster at Croke Park (in the Champions Cup semi-finals).

“We have had that experience of pressure knockout games which helped stand us in good stead. The Leinster experience was great, and you would love to have it again, to be honest.”

It would be a fairy-tale finish for 35-year-old Lawes if Saints prevail, and Dowson added: “He has always been so confident in his ability, so down to earth, always authentic.

“He has been there and done that, and everything that has been written, everything that has been said about him, I would back it all up.”