The Only Way Is Up for Bristol
November 7th, 2016 could prove to be a vital turning point in Bristol Rugby’s season. Winless all season and rock-bottom of the Aviva Premiership, the west country outfit sacked Director of Rugby Andy Robinson, putting Mark Tainton in temporary charge. Two months later, after four wins on the bounce in competitions, the only way is up for Bristol.
2016 – A Mixed Year
2016 was a year of highs and lows for Bristol Rugby. Having once again dominated the Championship, they gained promotion through the playoffs – at the third attempt. However, that jubilation was soon to turn sour. A dismal start to their return to the Premier division culminated in Robinson’s departure at the beginning of November. Bristol appeared to be facing an immediate return to the immediate return to the relative obscurity of the Greene King IPA Championship.
Bristol’s situation is completely different to that of last season’s bottom club London Welsh. They have strong financial backing from the Bristolian billionaire Steve Lansdown. Their home ground – Ashton Gate – seats 27,000 after some impressive upgrades. They had a Director of Rugby with international experience. Most importantly, they have a wealth of experience in their ranks – including the likes of Tom Varndell, Gavin Henson and Jordan Crane. Bristol were well-prepared for the Premiership.
No matter how prepared you are though, the gulf in class between the top two divisions is such that things are never that easy.
Change is Needed
At the beginning of November, following a 13-31 defeat to relegation rivals Sale at home, the Bristol hierarchy decided enough was enough. Out went Robinson, with their record points scorer Mark Tainton taking over until the end of the season. Furthermore, on December 5th it was announced that Pat Lam would take the reins in the 2017/8 season.
The signing of such a talented coach was a huge statement by the club – they intend to be in the Premiership next season. At first there appeared to be no immediate change to their fortunes. A derby defeat at Bath was followed by a defeat at home against the Tigers, before a trip to Kingsholm also ended badly. Bristol needed to find a win from somewhere – and quickly.
Europe to the Rescue
As with any sporting team, confidence breeds success. The problem with this, is that the easiest way to gain confidence is through success.
With vital games coming up against Worcester and Sale over the Christmas period, Bristol will have welcomed their European break. The duo of games against Pau in the Challenge Cup at the start of December came at the perfect time for Tainton’s men to kick-start their season. The French side, for all their endeavour, were not a match for Bristol either home or away. Thanks to some brilliance from Tom Varndell, Bristol were victorious 41-14 at home and 18-28 away.
It’s no secret that tries win rugby matches and Tainton will have been delighted to get Varndell scoring again.
A Merry Christmas and a Very Happy New Year
Two wins in Europe revitalised Bristol, heading into two crunch matches that could make or break their season.
Firstly, Worcester Warriors visited Ashton Gate on Boxing Day. When Tusi Pisi was (perhaps unfairly, depending on your opinion of the new directives) sent off early on, things were not looking good. The home team showed hugely impressive grit and determination to grind out a 20-28 victory. Varndell starred as he edged closer Mark Cueto’s try scoring record.
Next, a New Year’s Day trip to the north-west, to face a Sale team that were suddenly facing a relegation battle. Varndell eventually equaled Cueto’s record as Bristol picked up a vitally important 23-24 win to get 2017 off to a flying start.
What Comes Next?
Now just two points behind Worcester and seven behind Sale, every point is key for Tainton’s men. They will be going through the fixture list with a fine-tooth comb, working out the games they need to win to survive. There are two that stand out: Gloucester at home at the end of March and Falcons at home on the final day.
Gloucester are struggling this season, that is clear for all to see. LWOR’s James Barker looks at this further here, but it is obvious that something isn’t right at Kingsholm. Bristol will see this as a winnable game. Newcastle, for all their success this season, will also be considered a game they can win. If it comes down to it being a final day decider, emotions will be high. With the Ashton Gate crowd roaring them on, Bristol will be confident of success.
One thing is for sure, Bristol will not go down without a fight.