Rugby Union: Bristol's decline risks resulting in ultimate fall

After today's Premiership One play-off, Bristol may lose their top-flight status. Chris Hewett reflects on years of turmoil that precipitated the collapse of a once mighty West Country club
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IT USED to be known as the "Bristol fashion", a highly marketable brand of designer rugby tailored along classical lines - ugly pack, snappy half-backs, stiletto-sharp finishers out wide - but sufficiently smart and street-sensitive to maintain its balance on the cutting edge of a fast evolving game. Fifteen years on, there is nothing remotely hip about the Bristol club; musty, threadbare and reeking of neglect, it is the Afghan coat of the Allied Dunbar Premiership. And today, it risks being consigned to the wardrobe of history.

If London Scottish successfully defend a four-point lead in the second leg of a nerve-jangling play-off, they will assume Bristol's place in the top drawer of the English game. Had it not been for an isolated and wholly uncharacteristic explosion of pugilistic activity from Derrick Lee, the Exiles' international full-back, the landlord of the Last Chance Saloon would already have called time on his West Country regulars.

Lee's dismissal for knocking David Corkery, the abrasive Irish flanker, into the middle of the next millennium gave the rapidly expiring fallen giants a chink of light against which to rage at the Memorial Ground this afternoon. Those who respond emotionally to the grand traditions of the domestic game will rage with them, for Bristol are undeniably a big club with potential to become the biggest. As Mike Rafter, their cup-winning captain of 1983, said this week: "Without overstating the case, this city is one of the greatest rugby heartlands anywhere in the world."

But Rafter knows better than anyone that it is currently a heartland without a capital. Seldom has a rugby ground been more appropriately named, for the "Mem" is now a 10,000-capacity funeral parlour shrouded in the mists of reminiscence. Indeed, many of those most worthy of fond recall - Alan Morley, Nigel Pomphrey, Austin Sheppard, John Doubleday, Peter Polledri, Bob Hesford - still enjoy the odd pint in the lovely old members' bar and their very presence there adds a gut-wrenching poignancy to the painful situation in which the club now finds itself.

For many of the Bristol faithful, one fluffed goal-kick will always symbolise the great and apparently irreversible decline. It was not, to be fair, just any old kick, coming as it did in the last minute of the 1984 cup final with Bath; had Stuart Barnes, the new boy wonder of English rugby, not allowed the pressure to splinter his usual sang-froid, he would have retained the John Player trophy for his side and, in the view of many romantics, strangled the "Bath era" at birth.

That Barnes would soon help transform Bath into the greatest club side of them all remains the most bitter of ironies for Bristol and it is perhaps understandable that his name should remain mud on the Memorial Ground terraces. But those who continue to accuse him of calculated disloyalty merely delude themselves. The brutal truth is that Barnes had detected something rotten at the heart of the Bristol committee structure and decided to jump ship before he fell victim to its ravages.

"They were too insular, too narrow-minded for my liking," he once explained. "It seemed to me that those in charge were smug, self-satisfied and wholly lacking in ambition." And so it proved. Comfortable in the knowledge that they had been a major power for almost a century, the gin-and-tonic brigade allowed young, vibrant talents of the calibre of David Sole, David Egerton and Phil de Glanville to slip through the net. They were not Bristol material, apparently.

Over the next decade, they would fail to keep a veritable battalion of prime talents who were considered to consist of precisely the right stuff: Jon Webb, Arwel Thomas, Kyran Bracken, David Hilton, Alan Sharp, Mark Regan, Simon Shaw, Garath Archer, Andy Blackmore, Derek Eves. Every club loses the occasional diamond, but only Bristol can claim to have mislaid an entire mine-load.

Even when the Bristol management - or mismanagement, as they have long been labelled - appeared to be ahead of the game, the consequences were either Fawltyesque or seriously depressing. Following Northampton's lead in making Barrie Corless their full-time director of rugby, they appointed Colin McFadyean, a former England captain, in 1989. "Sadly," recalls Alistair Hignell, a Bristol international who now broadcasts on the game for the BBC, "he spent the first year without an office. It's hard to connect with the wider rugby world when you don't have a phone."

Rob Cunningham, a knowledgeable but contentious Scot, was next up and, helped by the late Elwyn Price's unerring eye for rugby talent, he began to piece together a side worthy of its traditions. Like Barnes before him, he identified deep-seated problems at committee level. Unlike Barnes, he decided to tackle those problems directly at the source. Within days, he had been expelled from the club and the nasty, hole-in-the-corner manner in which the deed was done left an indelible stain on Bristol's hitherto spotless reputation for fair play.

Both Brian Hanlon, an enthusiastic if inexperienced New Zealander, and Alan Davies, a coach of national standing laughably appointed on a part- time basis, attempted to square the circle, but with no major backer to underwrite a meaningful excursion into the market place, they knew they were firing cap guns at the moon. Bristol have been in deep doo-doos with the bank ever since they built their Centenary Stand at the height of the late-80s recession - it proved a financial albatross of pterodactyl proportions - and today's game will be played at a stadium that is very much in hock.

No one, least of all those players who were taken to the cleaners for an hour or more by London Scottish last Sunday, is remotely confident that the will to win still exists.

"This is a one-off and it will take blood, sweat, snot and tears to pull through," said Rafter, whose playing days were defined by epic spillages of the first two of those commodities. "I hope we've still got it in us because if we haven't, we'll be on a slippery slope to nowhere."

Awful, depressing and upsetting: Bristol players of the past fear for the future

Alistair Hignell

Bristol and England full-back, capped 14 times between 1975 and 1979

'The club has been taken by surprise by every development in the game since the mid-1980s. League rugby crept up on them, Bath emerged as the major West Country power while people at the Memorial Ground were still looking for Gloucester in their wing mirrors and the move to full professionalism caught them cold. There has always been this idea that having established themselves as a great club, things would automatically tick over. Even now, I hear people saying: "Don't worry, it will sort itself out." Sadly, things don't sort themselves out any more. As an objective broadcaster, I can only say that I hope and pray we stay up. I find the thought of relegation too awful to contemplate.'

Richard Harding

Bristol and England scrum-half, capped 12 times between 1985 and 1988

'I find the whole situation very sad, very depressing. We inhabit a different rugby age now but there has never been a time when a big club did not need to approach things in a professional manner. There has been a lack of vision and, in particular, a misunderstanding of the imperatives of professionalism. It seems to me that the current management, many of whom have been involved for many years, are too parochial in their outlook, too inward-looking and, yes, small-minded. Bath, on the other hand, attracted people of huge ability with broad horizons. I don't want to see Bristol relegated, but perhaps it would give the club a chance to start afresh.'

Mike Rafter

Bristol and England flanker, capped 17 times between 1977 and 1981

'Like any business, a rugby club is driven by the management, the men at the top, and without naming names, I believe some top-level appointments to have been serious misjudgements. There have been so many internal wrangles at the Memorial Ground that the club

has, quite literally, taken its eye off the ball. It hurts me to visit the offices and see on the wall a picture of me holding the John Player Cup aloft. Fifteen years ago, there was a huge crescendo of rugby interest in the city and we're in terrible danger of seeing the last remnants of that drift away. There is no simple remedy. There used to be one agenda in rugby, but professionalism has produced millions of different agendas. All I know is that I find the club's current predicament dreadfully upsetting.'