Bath Rugby veteran John Hall has taken on the role of Chairman of Bath Rugby Heritage. He played for the Club for 14 years and his historical connections with the game go back two generations. He may be the best one for the job, says Emma Clegg.
“John’s early career statistics were eye-watering. A tall, powerful back row forward with amazing speed, he averaged a try every three games throughout his club career, a remarkable achievement. Allied to those creditable qualities, John was imposing physically, a fierce tackler, a feared competitor, ever ready to go toe-to-toe with the toughest opposition.”
These words from Patrick J. Lennon describe the Bath Rugby legend that is John Hall – who has recently extended his Club Presidency and taken on a new position as Chairman of Bath Rugby Heritage. Born in Bath, John had a 14-year rugby career as a blindside flanker for Bath Rugby from 1981 to 1995, captaining the club and representing them on 277 occasions, widely acknowledged to have been the best forward that Bath Rugby has produced. “I just refused to lose a game”, says John.
This, and the fact that his teammates shared the same driving competitive urge, was a winning formula for the Bath team in the 1980s and early nineties. In this era just before the professional game Bath dominated the rugby scene under head coach Jack Rowell. Bath was arguably the strongest club side in the world during this period, and won 18 major trophies including 10 Domestic Cups and six League titles, and it was the first English side to win the European Cup in 1998.
In the amateur era, when there was no risk of promising local players being picked off by other clubs, Bath had a solid flow of young players coming up through the ranks under a scouting system led by clubman and coach Dave Robson, with high-calibre, international-quality players including John, alongside others such as Graham Dawe, Stuart Barnes, Tony Swift, Nigel ‘Ollie’ Redman, David Edgerton, Gareth Chilcott and Jeremy Guscott.
John, however, didn’t need much scouting because his association with Bath Rugby started when he was just six or seven: “Most of my childhood I lived about 300 metres from the Recreation Ground in Lime Grove, literally around the corner.
John’s early career statistics were eye-watering. A tall, powerful back row forward with amazing speed, he averaged a try every three games in the first few seasons…
“As children we’d be on the Rec most nights of the week kicking a ball around. We weren’t supposed to be there and the park-keeper would come and kick us off regularly, but it would be like shooing off sheep because we’d just go back again five minutes later. On the Saturday when Bath was playing we used to go down in the morning, kick a ball behind the flowerpot stands and play touch rugby for hours. And when the game started, we’d jump into the stands and watch the game. Even then we used to get big crowds of between 5,000 and 8,000 people.”
Several generations of John’s family also had a passion for rugby. “My dad Peter Hall played for Bath Rugby in the fifties and my granddad used to play in the twenties and just before the First World War. My granddad on my mother’s side, Harry Vowles, was a club captain in 1923/24. My father also met my mother through the club because he was stationed here during his national service at RAF Rudlow Manor.”
In the amateur days at the height of John’s playing career – including an international career from 1985 – all players held down full-time jobs, which meant a demanding schedule to fit in training, travel and playing the games. “During the season I probably spent four days working each week and for three mornings I would be in the gym at 6.30am or 7am, train for an hour and then for two, sometimes three evenings we’d train for two hours. It was tough, really tough. We had less time than the guys playing now because we had to hold down full-time jobs. We did it because we loved it and we wanted to win as a group.”
The playing career of the rugby power that was Hall was repeatedly hampered by injury. He travelled with the 1987 England World Cup team – in the company of Chilcott, Redman, Egerton and Richard Hill – but did not play a match as he was injured in training. He also missed the 1991 World Cup and 1989 British and Irish Lions Tour due to further knee problems. After retiring in 1995 as rugby league became professional, John became the club’s first Director of Rugby, led them to a League and Cup double in season 1995/96 and helped the club transition to the professional era.
“For the club and me personally it was a really difficult time because there was no blueprint; it was like the ‘Wild West’. I was a young man who had no idea what professional rugby meant, but nobody else did, and if you went round the clubs at that time nobody knew how the game was going to shape itself over the next few years. Bath had been so far ahead of other clubs that the gap was inevitably going to close. Professional rugby had little structure and brought a lot of uncertainty in its early days.
We had less time than the guys playing now because we had to hold down full-time jobs. We did it because we loved it…
“At that time I focused on ensuring we had a backer that would enable the club to transition into the professional era and allow me and the playing management team to retain our premium players. At the time they were getting targeted by the other clubs – players like Mike Catt, Jerry Guscott and John Callard were all getting huge offers elsewhere. We just pulled together as a team and sat down with each person to negotiate terms to make sure they didn’t move on. The players at the time wanted to stay, but they were getting offers of £50,000 per annum more than we were offering… so it was a player’s market. My main objective was to secure those players and thankfully for the most part we did.”
Hall’s new Chairman role has been introduced as the club focuses on bringing forward proposals for the redevelopment of The Rec, following the Supreme Court decision in October 2022 that the 1922 Covenants are not a barrier to redevelopment. Hall is looking to recruit and manage a team of volunteers to support the historic elements of the stadium project team in bringing to life the club’s heritage as part of the redevelopment, while continuing to drive the alumni network through the 1865 Club membership, for those who have played for the club.
“We want to build a team of volunteers to help sort, catalogue and find new ways of making the archive material available through the website.” Bath is one of the oldest rugby clubs, set up in 1865, and there is a rich array of digital and physical archives.
“There are plans to show a selection of archive material in a new stadium, where we want to tell the story about the ‘People’ and the ‘Place’ that has formed our long history. There are so many outstanding achievements and great people that have played a part in Bath Rugby over the past 158 years, and we want to honour and detail our heritage in ways that makes it open and available to all,” says Hall.
“Many have a huge affection for the club both with its role within in the city and the effect it has had on people’s lives. Exploring our heritage is vital to continue our connection with our past, our present and to enhance our future.” A new rugby stadium will bring an improved pitch, better facilities, changing rooms, seating areas and hospitality, and an architectural design that complements the city. “We want a statement that Bath can be proud of, one that is in line with a Premiership Rugby club of Bath’s stature.”
Bath Rugby will be submitting a new planning application for the stadium this year and will then share news of the development details with its supporters.
Bath Rugby would welcome donations of material relating to the Club’s history and would like to hear from any potential volunteers interested in helping to organise the archive. For more information contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; bathrugby.co.uk