At the end of Aviva Premiership round three, Bristol Rugby have perhaps predictably sunk to the bottom of the table. After a narrow loss at Twickenham against Harlequins two emphatic defeats to Northampton Saints and Wasps have reiterated the struggle the West Country side will have this season. Whether they will stay up, may depend quite heavily on top management support, led by chairman Steve Lansdown.
Who is Steve Lansdown?
Steve Lansdown is a local billionaire who has been quietly building a sport empire in the city. Bristol Sport now encompasses Bristol City FC, Bristol Rugby (men’s and women’s) and various other sports, as well as manufacturing the sides’ kits. Investment so far has focused on facilities, primarily on the Ashton Gate Stadium that can now hold 27,000 fans. The new two tier stand is named after the owner and forms a modern part of the city skyline. This may seem ambitious for a second tier football side that flirted with relegation for most of last season, and a rugby side that has been out of the Premiership since 2009. But that is reflective of Lansdown’s vision of the future: bold, brave and long-term.
But how is Bristol Rugby’s primary purpose this season i.e. survival going to fit with this vision? Due to the unneccessary Championship play-offs Bristol have been winning consistently for the last four seasons. This isn’t going to happen this season. The club is not automatically entitled a place in the top league. So how important does Lansdown view Premiership status? It was inevitable that the side would eventually get promoted, but has the possibility of immediate relegation been planned for?
Big Name Signings?
Rumours that the club are looking to bring in 68-cap Australia international Tatufa Polota-Nau. Ma’a Nonu was even mentioned as another target. There is no doubt that the club under Lansdown have the financial resources to bring these players in. However as neighbours Gloucester Rugby, and others, can attest, international names do not always mean success; most ‘Cherry and White’ fans try to forget Chris Paterson‘s torrid season at Kingsholm. Come February/March time and Bristol are, say seven or eight points adrift at the bottom of the table, will there be panic signings that look to avoid relegation at all costs.
All the signs suggest Lansdown is unlikely to ditch Director of Rugby Andy Robinson after a few bad results or throw obscene money on vanity signings. He could easily have turned the club into the Toulon of England and assemble a fantasy side of star names. In Championship terms they did have a ‘galactico’ feel to the squad in the past couple of years. However those who got them promoted are largely getting a chance now in the Premiership. This has been seen already in Bristol with the football side who did not splash the cash after promotion to the Sky Bet Championship.
In many ways, Bristol want to replicate Wasps’ commercial success off the field to support the rugby on the pitch. Sunday’s 70-22 result at the Ricoh Arena emphasizes just how far Bristol have to go before they will be a big player again. Fortunately, there will be the backing from the top down for many years to come.