The announcement of Bristol's new multi-million-pound backer has been postponed so many times over the last couple of years that the West Countrymen are in danger of making Billy Bunter's mythical postal order look like a bankable commodity. Time and again they have threatened to reveal the identity of a debt-clearing benefactor, only to pull back from the brink to the muttered accompaniment of embarrassed excuses.
Meanwhile, Robert Jones and his impoverished playing staff continue to labour willingly but unsuccessfully at the coalface. Short on talent, moral and results, the odds-on favourites for Premiership relegation were not particularly hopeful of extracting any succour from last night's thankless contest with Abdel Benazzi's crack French outfit and with good reason. After a first-half of one-way traffic in which Cedric Heymans, Agen's inside centre, scored two incisive tries and Guillame Bouic rubbed it in by converting both and landing two penalties, Agen led 20-3.
Bristol started brightly enough but then, they usually do. David Corkery and Steve Pearce, two genuine back row hard-nuts, took the game to the visitors by setting up a flurry of enthusiastic ruts. But by the end of the first quarter all they had to show for their efforts was a single Paul Burke penalty.
Agen, on the board through Bouic's first successful shot at goal, then slipped up the first of many available gears to send Heymans scurrying into the in-goal area to touch down just short of the dead ball line. He struck again on 26 minutes, curving away from Simon Martin and Kevin Maggs in the Bristol centre to complete a straightforward try.
Even though the dominant Benazzi withdrew early in the second half, Philippe Benetton, marshalled the French forces with no noticeable drop-off in efficiency. The left-wing Jean-Francois Mateo, sharp as you like on the left-wing, sprinted clear for two further tries, while Sylvain Gayri sped across the width of the field to add his name to the score sheet.
Bristol rustled up three seven-pointers of their own, the lively Ben Breeze claiming the first after opening up the Agen defence with a bold jinking run, and Nigel Williams, the referee, accounting for the others by awarding two penalty tries for persistent infringements. But the gulf in class was wider than the English Channel and Agen will fancy chances of going all the way to the title.
Bristol: Tries Breeze, Penalty 2; Conversions Burke 3; Penalty Burke. Agen: Tries Heymans 2, Mateo 2, Gayri; Conversions Bouic 3, Prosper; Penalties Bouic 2, Prosper.
Bristol: J Lewsey; D Tiueti, S Martin, K Maggs, B Breeze; P Burke, R Jones (capt); A Collins, K Dunn (J Dickin, 69), K Fullman, J Brownrigg, C Eagle (E Rollitt, 55), S Pearce, D Corkery, R Collins (C Short, 55).
Agen: V Thomas (S Prosper, 54); A Gayri, J-C Cistacq, C Heymans, J-F Mateo; G Bouic (L Loubere, 72), G Sudre; J-J Crenca (E Rodriguez, h-t), M Dal Maso, P Piacentini (S Terle, 76), P Fonti, C Porcu (N El Mekkaoui, 57), P Benetton, A Benazzi (capt; X Pujos, 45), H Lefevre.
Referee: N Williams (Wales).