"It's All About Bath" - Head Coach van Graan Assures of Club Focus Over Internationals Ahead of Premiership Semi-Final - Ruck

“It’s All About Bath” – Head Coach van Graan Assures of Club Focus Over Internationals Ahead of Premiership Semi-Final

Bath head coach Johann van Graan has ensured that his players have their sole focus on the upcoming Premiership semi-finals, despite the possibility of incoming international call-ups. Van Graan has plenty of budding England hopefuls within his squad, with back-row bruiser Alfie Barbeary amongst those tipped for a test match debut this Summer.

England head coach Steve Borthwick named an initial 19-man training squad on the recent bank holiday Monday, with the group set to grow following the end of the 2023/24 Premiership season. Currently, Borthwick has been unable to call in players from the four play-off qualified clubs, as Northampton Saints, Bath, Sale Sharks and Saracens retain their England internationals at for a push for the league title.

Johann van Graan, Head Coach of Bath Rugby during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Match between Bath Rugby and Sale Sharks at the Recreation Ground on 24 March 2023. Photo: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK

Nonetheless, Borthwick and his coaching staff will have their eyes on the upcoming Premiership semi-finals, before the head coach names his finalised Summer touring squad on June 10th. England head to Japan and New Zealand for a thrilling three-match series, which could well hand some Premiership starlets their first senior cap.

Despite the possibility of gaining international honours, van Graan reiterated in a recent Bath press conference that the team’s focus is only on and Saturday’s clash with Sale Sharks.

“No, the international game hasn’t been in any part of our discussion. All credit to the different international coaches, whether it be England, Wales, Scotland, South Africa, that’s all happening in the background. Our focus has been totally on ourselves in the Premiership, and we’ve got very good relationships with all the national teams and it’s good communication, but that hasn’t interfered or that hasn’t been mentioned in any type of meeting for us.

Alfie Barbeary of Bath Rugby during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Match between Bath Rugby and Sale Sharks at the Recreation Ground on 24 March 2023. Photo: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK

“It’s about performing for your club and with the club do well, then certain things will come from that. We love the international game, we respect it, but it’s all about Bath at this stage.”

Bath have worked valiantly throughout the 18 rounds of the regular Premiership season. Van Graan highlighted the impressive statistic of how his club is the only side to have stayed in the top four for the entity of the campaign. Such a solid season secured the Somerset side a second placed finish, with a home semi-final on the cards set for a packed out Rec.

Upon the two Premiership meetings that Bath and Sale have had, the winning spoils have gone to the home team. Rewinding the clock back to November, and Alex Sanderson’s men recorded a narrow 11-9 win at a bitingly cold AJ Bell Stadium. More recently, the winners share of the purse remained in Bath, as the blue, black and whites racked up a 42-24 win back in March. Speaking on the significance of the home support, van Graan discussed how the Premiership cards ended up reading in Bath’s favour.

Johann van Graan, Head Coach of Bath Rugby celebrates after winning during the Investec Champions Cup Match between Bath Rugby and Racing 92 at the Recreation Ground on 7 January 2024. Photo: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK

“There are two ways to look at it. I think you’re spot on, they are a class side. I respect. Alex (Sanderson), what they’ve achieved, their finalists last year, they’ve won I think their last five or six times. But we’re not looking at it that way. We’re looking at it. How are we going to play?

“How are we going to impose ourselves and you can look at it factually, as I said earlier, the only team to be in the top four for all 18 rounds. And we’ve been consistently in every single game. And we’ve got some of the best players in the league. And now we’ve got a very good defence, a very good set-piece.

“But again, I want to emphasise our attack once once we get quick ball we are difficult to handle. And we’re not going to change the way that we play with our flow of balance and on a focus totally on ourselves and our mentalities. We’re playing at home, they have to stop us. And as I said earlier, we respect our opposition, but total focus on ourselves.”

Johann van Graan, Head Coach of Bath Rugby during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Match between Bath Rugby and Saracens at the Recreation Ground on 26 April 2024. Photo: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK

Bath come into the semi-finals with the goal of winning their first Premiership title since the 1995/96 season, in what will be a historic fixture for the Somerset club. Van Graan has been apart of many memorable semi-finals in the past, given his illustrious coaching career from the Springboks to Munster in the URC. The 44-year-old was asked if he approaches such pivotal matches as ‘any other game’, to which he gave a clear response from Bath’s Farleigh House training centre;

“It’s definitely not just another game. It’s a knockout game. I’ve been privleged enough to be involved in Super Rugby semis, URC semis, a Rugby World Cup semi-final, our first Premiership Final. And what I’ve learned from all these things in different competitions this is not just another game.

“We’re not treating as just another game. We’re sticking to a process but we are excited about this game, and we are embracing it. Ultimately, if you can’t enjoy it don’t see this as a different game, then why do you play this sport. Is the expectation, yes, but we want to do well in these games.

Finn Russell of Bath Rugby during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Gloucester Rugby and Bath Rugby at Kingsholm Stadium on 10 November 2023 in Gloucester, England. (Photo by Tom Sandberg/PPAUK)

“Now we’ve got a first and second half to win and we’re preparing for that. Acknowledging that we’re coming up against the finalists last year, it’s another good team but that’s what you’re going to face. It’s the semi-finals, and you are going to face another good team. So, our focus has soly been on ourselves and we’re loving the preparation.”

Van Graan then summarised his team’s performance this season as one word: consistent. Bath have proven time and again that they have the ability to dig deep in the matches’ dying embers, and achieve a victory when the odds are stacked up against them. The head coach has a clear philosophical approach in regards to success, and believes that his side are in an excellent position to bring a Premiership title to the Rec for the first time in 28 years.

“I think that’s the Premiership. The one word I won’t associate ourselves with is erratic. The word that I would associate with us is consistent. The only team in the Premiership that for all 18 rounds, we’re in the top four. The only team that through 17 rounds got a least one point in every single game.

Chris Cloete of Bath Rugby and Thomas Du Toit of Bath Rugby celebrates after winning during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Match between Bath Rugby and Newcastle Falcons at the Recreation Ground on 14 October 2023. Photo: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK

“So look at the consistency, means this is group of players that stayed in every single fight. So the Premierships an amazing competition where I’m going to use the Quinns game as an example, you don’t really play that bad and you’re down by 40 points to three. And then you stick to your beliefs at half time you might want to do technical changes, and then you end up at 40-36. So nothing’s more testament to the Premiership, and the way this is consistency from our side.”

Sounding off on his impressive Premiership campaign, van Graan was joined by Ben Spencer in the Bath press conference. The scrum half was appointed as captain ahead, when van Graan took over as Bath head coach following Stuart Hooper’s departure, and the South African explained his decision in awarding Spencer with the honour of the armband.

“When I came to the club, I took my time to select the captain and Ben was the standout candidate. The best in his position and a player that I saw world class ability in, and I needed somebody to lead the group by action not by words. Ben I’d say is more on the quiet side, but he’s an amazing rugby player.

Ben Spencer, Captain of Bath Rugby watches the scrum during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Match between Bath Rugby and Bristol Bears at the Recreation Ground on 17 November 2023. Photo: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK

“His decision making skill is so impressive. He’s got this ability to accelerate that not a lot of nines have with ball in hand, and Ben is the man for the big moments, if you look at the tries that he’s scored for us in big games over the last few years.

“Then I was also looking for somebody off the field, because I think a captain is a representation of yourself as a family man, leads by example. And we know that he is there for the big moments.”