231 days ago Bath Rugby faced the Leicester Tigers in the semi-final of the Aviva Premiership competition. On that day at The Recreation Ground Bath Rugby entered Tigers' twenty two 8 times and scored off 7 of those visits. They were mesmeric, as they had been for much of the season, and without question they led the way in attack for others to follow.
If you fast-forward to the here and now the early season story is a little different, to put it mildly. In the opening rounds Bath just haven't truly clicked, instead individual errors have been catching and it is fair to say that confidence isn't high. It is during times like these that the character of a squad is tested to its limits, when the criticism comes hounding at their door from outside, and inside the players know that they can do so much better.
To state the very obvious, last weekend's loss against the Newcastle Falcons was never part of the plan, however it will certainly have added even more 'edge', as Mike Ford calls it, their training and focus ahead of three back-to-back European Champions Cup matches. The side know that unless they put something resembling their A game on the park at the Stade Felix Mayol they will be ruthlessly taken to the cleaners and European becomes very challenging indeed. Toulon may also not be at very the top of their game however they aren't the 'All Stars' of the world game for nothing and so many have been there and done it all before that they can turn it on.
Eric Escande, Quade Cooper, Bryan Habana, Ma'a Nonu, Mathieu Bastareaud, Josua Tuisova and James O'Connor make up their backline. From the size and power of Nonu and Bastareaud to the finishing of Habana there's plenty for Bath to think about. Quade Cooper, as polarising as he may be and I for one am not his greatest fan, can turn on the charm instantly. Needless to say he'll need to be kept on a very close lead by Bath's back row and up front you have the small matter of dealing with France's new captain Guilhem Guirado. Then of course you have the talismanic trio of Juan Smith, Juan Fernandez Lobbe and Duane Vermeulen to handle and it is time to see Francois Louw unleash his very best at the breakdown.
Against a side like Toulon, there isn't anywhere to hide, Bath's pack must scrummage with precision and power and ensure they get on the right side of George Clancy from the get go. They have to create the platform for Bath to work off and Chris Cook's service to George Ford must be pristine and fast. In the middle George must fly, understandably his confidence was knocked at the World Cup, however this is the type of stage that he lives for and can thrive on. Elsewhere discipline has plagued the entire side all season and it cannot play a part in Sunday's match, for if you face Toulon with 14 men you are asking for trouble.
The re-introduction of Stuart Hooper and Dominic Day into the second-row is vital. Firstly it will sure up that area of the game and secondly from a leadership point of view their captain is vital. Stuart's presence on the field is difficult, if impossible to replicate and Bath have been missing him greatly. Leroy Houston shared with me how important the man affectionally known as 'Hoops' brings to the side saying that he knows exactly how to motivate and focus the side as well as re-direct them back onto the right track when they are going off course. With difficult times behind them and facing the world's best you need him at the heart of it driving the side.
On paper Bath's team has all the elements that it needs; backs that have the ability to fox even the wiliest of defences, forwards that don't lack for physicality or endeavour and a bench with reinforcements that, in most areas, are of equal strength to those that are starting.
However just how will they ensure that they put their 'true' game on the park and deal with the pressure on them? This is the ultimate question and the one that will impact more than anything on their output in the South of France. Mike Ford said that this is a fixture with a 'spot of fear' to it and he is right. His players have to channel that fear in the right way and truly believe that this match against the 'World Select' is the best possible opportunity to turn everything around and finally remind us all about the type of brilliant side that they can be. There is absolutely no room for concern or trepidation, those emotions are catching and if even one player doesn't believe then that can ripple through a squad like wildfire.
So will Bath beat Toulon on Sunday afternoon? The pragmatic individual will say no as will the form book, however I personally would love to see it happen. First, for the good of the club and the greatly talented individuals housed within the squad and second, for the Aviva Premiership and Champions Cup for I believe that both competitions are better for Bath being at the top of their game.
RC Toulon: 15 James O'Connor 14 Josua Tuisova 13 Mathieu Bastareaud 12 Ma'a Nonu 11 Bryan Habana 10 Quade Cooper 9 Eric Escande 1 Florian Fresia 2 Guilhem Guirado 3 Levan Chilachava 4 Jocelino Suta 5 Konstantine Mikautadze 6 Juan Smith 7 Juan Fernandez Lobbe 8 Duane Vermeulen Replacements: 16 Anthony Etrillard 17 Xavier Chiocci 18 Matt Stevens 19 Steffon Armitage 20 Frederic Michalak 21 Maxime Mermoz 22 Sebastien Tillous-Borde 23 Thibault Lassale
Bath Rugby: 15 Anthony Watson 14 Semesa Rokoduguni 13 Jonathan Joseph 12 Kyle Eastmond 11 Matt Banahan 10 George Ford 9 Chris Cook 1 Nick Auterac 2 Rob Webber 3 David Wilson 4 Stuart Hooper (C) 5 Dominic Day 6 Matt Garvey 7 Francois Louw 8 Leroy Houston Replacements: 16 Ross Batty 17 Max Lahiff 18 Henry Thomas 19 Charlie Ewels 20 David Denton 21 Jonathan Evans 22 Rhys Priestland 23 Tom Homer