How Bath turned 'hope into belief' to reach final

Bath players celebrate at the final whistle against Sale in the Premiership semi-final
Bath have won the league title six times with their most recent triumph coming in 1996 [Rex Features]

In one of Johann van Graan's meetings with Bath's players after taking over at the club, he put a photo of Twickenham Stadium up during a presentation.

"I remember him saying this is a train journey and people will get on and will get off but this train is going in one direction," Bath hooker Tom Dunn told BBC Sport.

"He put a picture of Twickenham up and said 'this is where we're going to go. I don't know when we want to be there, I don't know if it will be this year, next year or when, but it's where we're going to finish'."

Bath had finished bottom of the Premiership table when the South African came in as head of rugby. Two years on, almost to the day, they are heading to Twickenham to take on Northampton Saints in the final and fight for their first league trophy since 1996.

Eighteen months into his tenure and Van Graan said "everything had changed" at Bath.

New coaching and backroom staff had been brought in, new systems implemented, new tactics and training methods and high profile players such as Finn Russell, Ollie Lawrence and Thomas du Toit have been added on the way.

But 19 of the 43 senior players at Bath this season were there during the low of the 2021-22 campaign, Dunn included.

"We had all the pieces to the puzzle available to us. We had the players, we had the facilities, we had the fanbase. We just weren't clicking, we just weren't putting it in the right order," Dunn said.

"It's amazing where hope turns into belief and I think that's probably the thing that's changed the quickest for us."

Charlie Ewels holds his arms in the air after beating Sale in the semi-final
Lock Charlie Ewels was at Bath when they last reached the Premiership final in 2015 [Getty Images]

Instead, the 44-year-old began organically fostering a culture that saw everyone moving in the same direction, towards the same goal.

"Every other DOR [director of rugby] I've worked under has had a fine system and that can be things from being late to meetings, wearing the wrong kit, parking the car in the wrong space. Johann doesn't have any of that," Dunn said.

"He believes you treat people like you want to be treated yourself and with that I believe comes honesty, and with that comes trust.

"If there's 72 of you doing things one way and there's new players or someone young comes into the squad and they do things differently, no one needs to tell them they're doing it wrong, no one needs to fine them. It sticks out you have to do things the way we do things."

Prop Du Toit agrees that Van Graan's man-management skills have had a big impact.

"The important thing is the way that he treats people, the way that he treats staff, players, everyone around is a real aspect of respect that he gives to everyone here," he told BBC Radio Bristol.

"A lot of people react very well to that way of handling and I think he's a good boss, he's a good person to talk to and he's really got your feelings at heart, your interests at heart."

Johann van Graan points during a training session
Johann van Graan has transformed Bath during his two-year tenure so far [Getty Images]

Lock Charlie Ewels has been with Bath since he was 19 and like Dunn was at the club the last time they reached the Premiership final in 2014-15.

He said that while Van Graan is clear in how he wants the team to play, he does not micro-manage or over-coach.

“After that he puts the trust in the players and his assistant coaches to find the answers to those principles," Ewels told BBC Sport.

"He's gone and got the best out of the people that were here. I’ve played in some unbelievably talented Bath teams with some brilliant players and we haven’t probably got the results that the team deserved."

Ewels also pointed to a strength and depth in the squad now that did not exist before. During this year's Six Nations Bath saw the most players called up to the international teams.

"He’s also installed a level of competition in the squad which I think is crucial and I think I haven't’ seen since we were last in the final in 2014-15," Ewels said.

"I look at the team that trains against the team sometimes and think wow. If you have an off day or week the next guy is in.”

Bath have won the league title six times during the 1980s and 1990s and also have a European Cup in their trophy cabinet from that era.

A return to Twickenham this weekend has not yet reached the club to those same highs but it has put them back on the right track.

"The lows make the highs higher, they make it all the sweeter," Ewels said.

"There’s been a load of work behind the scenes and a load of work on the training pitches and those are the things that have got us to this position and I’m just really proud of that."