Guy Mercer’s wait to lead Bath out for the first time as club captain is almost over, although he will miss out on the trip to Welford Road this Sunday.
His return to full health after a niggling foot injury is edging closer. Things in his absence however have run smoothly.
Bath head into the fourth round of the Premiership top of the table, having reproduced the enterprising style of rugby which took them all the way to the final in 2015.
The speed at which things fell apart last season now feel like an anomaly when compared to how Bath have started out with three wins – over Northampton, Newcastle and Worcester – and the way they made the Premiership final the season before last.
In the long run, Bath might end up being better off for having come through that tough patch. At the same time, that dip cost previous head coach Mike Ford his job.
“How things ended with Mike is a shame. He did such a lot for the club, taking us to the final, and set up the way we have been attacking which supporters and players around the league respect massively. There is loads to be thankful to him for,” Mercer said.
“But, in terms of what we take from last season, guys have had to do a lot of introspective work. When things go badly you actually look at things properly, taking a lot forward on an individual level.
“As a group, having to go through adversity together, it will either shatter you completely, or it will tighten you up. For us it has done the latter.”
That improved ability to handle a challenge has certainly been tested early by an unhelpful injury list.
Taulupe Faletau, the star signing, lasted less than 20 minutes on his debut against Northampton. David Denton also limped off in that first game. Then there is no Francois Louw either, away with the Springboks, along with other absentees like centre Max Clark and Rhys Priestland. Not to mention Luke Charteris, Nick Auterac and Niko Matawalu all are not in the 23 for Sunday.
Bath’s response to that list of absentees has been impressive. Young players have stepped up in the back row especially – Tom Ellis getting the start at seven this Sunday after Zach Mercer’s performances in recent weeks.
“Having those guys out injured is upsetting, but there is nothing you can do about it. Moaning about is not going to get anyone anywhere,” Mercer added.
“Todd [Blackadder] is excited about the younger players coming through and has put a lot of confidence into those players, which they should have.
“If you are making your debut for the club, you should be buzzing about it rather than feeling like you have a pit in your stomach. It should be an honour to get out there and so far all of those guys have done a stellar job.”
Blackadder and Bath’s other new coaching arrival, Tabai Matson, seem to be the right appointments at the right time, already lifting the club out of their slump.
Their arrival, combined with the work done by Ford beforehand, is a blend that Mercer believes can get the club back into the play-offs, saying: “Todd has been a breath of fresh air. Four weeks off as well is good for guys to clear their heads. The air of positivity around the club, combined with all that was built beforehand, is a special mix.
“We had some pretty solid foundations laid down, but we were under performing. Having Todd come in has been reinvigorating.”
A fourth straight win, and away at Leicester no less, would certainly back that claim up. It is some time since two of England’s most famous clubs were passing the title of being the best club in the land between themselves in the mid-1990s, but the spirit of those contests has not gone away.
There is certainly no love lost. And Mercer having missed out this time will want to be a part of it when the two sides meet again later this season in ‘The Clash’ at Twickenham.
“Even the week before you train, you feel it around the squad. As a Bath player, you know you have been in a game after you play Leicester. It is unbelievably intense.”
See Bath Rugby face their fiercest rivals Leicester Tigers in The Clash at Twickenham on 8 April 2017. For tickets and further information visit www.bathrugby.com/theclash