Bath top at Christmas after Harlequins win – and they have ingredients to be next Saracens

Joe Cokanasiga crashes over for a Bath try
Joe Cokanasiga crashes over for a Bath try - Patrick Khachfe/Getty Images

Bath 25 Harlequins 17

You have to go back to 2003 for the last time Bath were top of the Premiership on Christmas Day. More pertinently, you have to go back another decade for the days when a strong Bath side meant a strong England side.

Yet now, after years of high-spending and underachievement, all the signs suggest that Johann van Graan’s side have the potential to deliver for both club and country.

This bonus-point victory in the driving rain at The Rec was enough to move Bath a point clear of Sale Sharks at the top of the table. That it came against one of the form sides in the country, a side who had beaten Racing 92 and Sale earlier this month, was of more significance, despite the challenging conditions.

And with nine players in Van Graan’s side in contention for England selection in a squad that is bolstered by a strong South African influence, there is a sense that if the improvement continues on this current trajectory, Bath could emerge to be as important to the national side as Saracens were in their pomp.

Critically in Van Graan, Bath have a head coach who is acutely aware of the importance of building a strong relationship between club and country. In the weeks during the Six Nations camps last season when England needed players to bolster their training sessions, Bath were among the most accommodating and again during the World Cup allowed some of their young guns to travel to France to assist the national side’s preparations.

The acquisition of Rob Burgess as head of recruitment has also been a masterstroke, and with former England and Scotland head coach Andy Robinson in charge of the Bath academy and a new surface laid at the Rec, it feels like Bath project is finally coming together.

“I am in the English system now and I have been fortunate enough to have been in the South African system and the Irish system and know that if the performance of the team goes up then you get more players in the national squad,” said Van Graan, the former Munster head coach who was previously the forwards coach with the Springboks.

“And the more players you get playing Test rugby, then the more competitive you become and you can perform on days like we did today because we came up against a fully-loaded Quins team full of internationals. You want your players to play Test matches and hopefully we can improve them and that hopefully proves to others that by coming here that we as a group of coaches can improve them.”

Van Graan says his five-year spell with the Springboks opened his eyes to the challenges that face a national head coach to the extent that Borthwick has become a ‘very good rugby friend’ since his arrival at the Rec at the start of last season.

“I was on the other side of the fence as well coaching with South Africa and we had a very good relationship with the South African teams and I’ve said it many times I loved my time in Ireland and I learned so much in terms of the healthy relationship between the Irish provinces and the Irish national team.

“Steve’s become a very good rugby friend of mine. I’ve coached against him when he was at Japan and England and I respect him a lot. I’ll do anything in my power to make this club better but also help the English National team because ultimately, I’m coaching predominantly English players.”

Will Stuart, Alfie Barbeary, Ollie Lawrence and Ben Obano are among those players who have already shot to prominence this season, but in front of a capacity crowd at the Rec it was the turn of Joe Cokanasiga and Charlie Ewels to deliver the kind of stand-out performances that Borthwick will have taken note.

Cokanasiga appears to have bounced back from the acute disappointment of missing out on selection for the World Cup, and his brace of tries, the first as early as the second minute of this entertaining contest, underscored a powerhouse display.

Quins had their moments, with some touches of brilliance by Marcus Smith furthering his claims to replace Owen Farrell as England’s No 10 by crossing for a try without any Bath defenders laying a hand on him from a line-out, evading first Niall Annett and then cruising passed Cokanasiga to level the scores in a first half with little between the two sides.

Chandler Cunningham-South can also expect to be fast-tracked into the England squad with another physically imposing display, while Jack Walker and James Chisholm scored second-half tries for Quins.

But Bath were always in control and had been unlucky not to have been further ahead at the break when Danny Care was shown a yellow ward for diving at Ben Spencer following a brilliant break by Will Muir that appeared to have resulted in a try by Max Ojomoh. Russell instead kicked the penalty and it was Bath who mastered the conditions in the second half, scoring further tries by Elliott Stooke, Cokanasiga and Miles Reid.

Match details

Scores: 5-0, Cokanasiga try, 5-5, Smith try; 8-5, Russell pen; 13-5, Stooke try, 18-5, ,Cokanasiga try, 20-5, Russell con; 20-10, Walker try, 20-12, Smith con; 25-12, Reid try; 25-17, Chisholm try.

Bath: M Gallagher; J Cokanasiga, O Lawrence, M Ojomoh (Redpath 58), W Muir; F Russell (Bailey 75), B Spencer (Schreuder 70); B Obano (Schoeman 58), N Annett (Dunn 58), T du Toit (Stuart 58), E Stooke (Roux 73), C Ewels, CJ van Velze, M Reid, A Barbeary (Coetzee 63).

Harlequins: T Green; N David, W Joseph (Beard 64), A Esterhuizen, L Lynagh, M Smith, . D Care (Porter 75); J Marler (Baxter 49), J Walker (Riley 70), W Collier (Lewis 49), J Launchbury (Herbst 56), S Lewies (Hammond 56), C Cunningham-South (Evans 49, J Chisholm, A Dombrandt.

Referee: L Pearce (RFU)