Nov 24 2006: It was billed as the clash of the season. A West Country derby and a battle for top spot in the Guinness Premiership rolled into one. Bristol’s Memorial Stadium is packed to the rafters, and despite the driving sheets of rain and merciless cold, the old ground is rocking with anticipation.
Gloucester, without a defeat to their name all season, look to have taken the spoils with Willie Walker’s 75th minute penalty. Alas, the Cherry and Whites underestimated the grit and determination of Bristol’s old guard. The pack rumble up the field once more, creaking legs an’ all – it’s ugly but familiar stuff from the boys in blue. Seventeen nail-bitingly tense phases later and the ball is set up for a Jason Strange attempt at the posts. Twelve thousand people hold their breath, but they needn’t have. The Welshman executes with aplomb, as if last-gasp drop goals were easy pickings. The Bristol players and fans celebrate with gusto, top spot and the local bragging rights are secured.
Fast forward two years and it’s anything but rosy for Bristol Rugby. Ravaged by injury and lack of form, the club has stuttered both on and off the field. Seven points adrift at the foot of the Premiership table, Richard Hill’s side have managed just one victory this season – shipping nearly three hundred points in just twelve games. A club on the brink of relegation, threatened by administration, and without the certainty of a permanent home next season. It ain’t looking good. So what has gone wrong down at the Mem?
Let’s start with the players. Of the side that usurped Gloucester at the Premiership summit, thirteen of the twenty-one man squad still remain. But the impregnable old guard has fallen away, Hilton and Llewellyn hanging up their boots, Regan and Crompton on their last legs. Dan Ward-Smith and Shaun Perry, both serious contenders for the International jersey have been hit with long term injury and upon their return look shadows of their former selves.
Roy Winters, a member of England’s South Africa summer touring side struggles to make the bench; such is his fall from grace. The introduction of the ELV’s has all but destroyed Bristol’s former game-plan. Dominated by the trundling pack, Hill’s strategy has proved dividends in recent years. Unattractive, but hell, it was effective. Today the side struggles with an unfamiliar, expansive style. There’s no recognised kicker in the side, so touch finders are desperately absent, and the first-up tackling just isn’t good enough.
Once masters of the dead-ball, Bristol have struggled to retain possession in the scrum and lineout. Former Welsh International Robert Sidoli just doesn’t command the same impact as his fellow countryman, the formerly indomitable Gareth Llewellyn. In the scrums, the pack is brushed aside – plagued by a lack of discipline stemming from wind-up merchant Mark Regan and the equally hot-headed Jason Hobson.
The backline also suffers the same plight. Jarvis, a summer signing from Quins has failed to deliver, and the Arscott brothers are strangers to the duo that terrorised defences last season. Only the ‘Rocketman’ David Lemi has showed his class, scoring the bulk of Bristol’s tries this season and often looking the only outlet of attacking prowess.
Some blame, but certainly not all has to lie with the coaching staff. To the confusion of the majority of Bristol fans, forwards coach Martin Haag was replaced by former Worcester coach John Brain. Goodbye aggressive rucking and ball retention, hello handling errors and infringements. Thanks, John. In contrast, Richard Hill is a very astute tactician. Hill operates on a shoestring budget, and Bristol has thrived upon his expertise. If ever there was a miracle worker, then it’s this guy. Jesus, who?
But Hill has been at the helm for six years, and his tenure is becoming increasingly difficult. With his tried and trusted dropping like flies, the cash just isn’t there to replace them. Rumours of his departure at the end of the year are rife, with French club Montauban or Premiership rivals Leicester vying for his signature. A tempting prospect for the former England scrum-half indeed.
As with most things, Bristol’s decline is almost certainly all about the money. As part of a recent cost-cutting exercise, general manager Corin Palmer was sacked, along with several senior playing staff and half the academy. The club’s joint bid for a new stadium with neighbouring Bristol Rovers was delayed amidst farcical planning and financial errors. Subsequently, Bristol’s proposed two year stint at Newport’s Rodney Parade was cancelled – leaving Bristol with a considerable financial deficit to cover. Throw the notorious credit-crunch into the mix and the club has some serious problems. The situation got so bad that the board practically begged for a cash injection in the local media, and the players were uncertain where the next pay-cheque was coming from.
On February the 13th, Bristol welcome Newcastle Falcons to the Memorial Stadium. It’s the biggest game in the club’s recent history. Win and the side stand a very small chance of overtaking Newcastle and confining them to the drop. Defeat just doesn’t bear thinking about. Relegation from the Guinness Premiership won’t just signal the end of Bristol’s time with the big boys, it might also spell the end of one of the oldest clubs in England.
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