By Jeremy Guscott
IT would have been a shift in the globe’s orbit for Bristol not to have won promotion to the Premiership given the resources they threw at winning the Championship this season.
With Pat Lam coming in as coach, and the quality of the players they brought into the squad, like Steve Luatua and Ian Madigan, Bristol had what they needed to finish well clear after losing only one game all season.
The only thing that could have been a big enough problem to prevent them coming up was complacency, but with Lam having achieved what he did at Connacht it was unlikely to be a factor.
Bristol appear to have the nucleus of a decent Premiership squad going into next season, and this time with a first past the post finish they have been able to do more planning. There are not too many home-grown players at the club these days, but that is not a big thing anymore because it applies to most other Premiership sides.
The big question is can Bristol stay up? My initial instinct is that it will be very difficult – and that is one of the reasons why signing both Danny Cipriani and James Haskell after their release by Wasps could be a very good move. There is a tipping point in Rugby Union where you get to be a team that can be competitive every season – and to go from the Championship to being competitive week in week out in the Premiership is a tall order.
All Bristol have to do is look at Bath, who with all that playing potential are currently languishing in eighth place in the table.
However, there is movement in the Premiership, with Newcastle pitching for the play-offs after being in relegation territory most years. Newcastle have proved this season that if you get the attitude right and blend it with the right work ethic you can do better than just survive in the Premiership.
No-one saw that coming – just as no one saw Exeter surviving after they beat Bristol in the Championship double-header final to win promotion in 2010. Even so, it would be surprising if Bristol kicked clear of the relegation zone, and something has to change for Worcester – who are up for sale – not to be battling it out with them.
It’s hard to believe that Harlequins and Northampton will not get some uplift with new coaches arriving after disappointing seasons, but if they haven’t rebooted then Bristol might get the helping hand they need.
Bristol can also help themselves by making sure that their front five put down a solid platform, and that Madigan reins himself in at fly-half.
Madigan cannot do what he did at Leinster in terms of speculative stuff. There will be a huge emphasis on him to do the basics consistently and effectively, in the same way Johnny Sexton does for Leinster and Jimmy Gopperth does for Wasps.
To compete with sides like Exeter and Saracens you have got to be incredibly well-drilled, understand good game management, and have that blend of youth and experience. Bristol also have to recognise the importance of getting a good start through early victories, rather than making the mistake of thinking they can start slow and build.
As for London Irish being relegated, there are lots of people pointing to them being competitive because they lost a number of games by fewer than seven points – but the reality is that they were not good enough to stay up.
What Bristol have to realise is that in the Premiership you get what you deserve, and it is something that they should understand having almost fallen off the rugby map after spending eight years out of the top tier.
Bristol have not been so much a sleeping giant as one that went into hibernation. They were a big club in the 1970s and early 1980s, but after that their fortunes have been very much up and down.
Being a big city club they are different to Exeter, who have managed to harness the support of their local community in a big way. Bristol is too big a place for that because the diversity makes it harder to get the whole community behind them.
The reality is that if Bristol are successful the crowds will come – and if not, they won’t. They’ve got a hell of a job facing them but with the financial resources of owner Steve Lansdowne, Lam’s ability as head coach, and a Bristolian like Mark Tainton as chief operating officer, they at least have a fighting chance.
There’s been a lot of regeneration and commercial activity in Bristol in recent times, and with a big hitter like Lansdowne involved, the regeneration of the rugby club has credibility. By bringing in Lam he has also selected wisely.
Lam knows what it takes. He was a talented player with a huge work ethic and great drive, and he is also a good person. He has also had the benefit of a full season in which to get his strategy in place, and he will have the benefit of having Tainton – who I played against throughout my time at Bath – as a sounding board. He’s a Bristol man, and no-one knows more about Bristol rugby.
Back in the day Bath v Bristol derbies were always sell-outs, and even though Bristol will have lost supporters to Bath and Gloucester over the years, I can’t see that changing. Bath will be delighted to have more local derbies of that magnitude again, and it will not only fill the Rec but it’s quite possible that the 27,000 capacity Ashton Gate will be full too.
The local rivalry between the clubs goes back forever, carried on by supporters of both sides through the generations. Bath and Bristol are interconnected by people travelling to work in both directions throughout the eras, and through marriage and family ties.
I’m a Bathonian and I cannot wait to see Bath play Bristol again in a proper home and away format – and while I wish Bristol well in the Premiership, there will be only one team I’ll be supporting on the day!
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