COMMENTARY : Bristol quick to forget past

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The Independent Online
How utterly, perfectly appropriate that after a relegation dogfight between Bristol and Saracens entirely worthy of its lowly status the attention of both sets of antagonists immediately turned to a perilous future. Looking back on this awful affair would drive anyone to anger.

Mind you, Bristol were so enraptured by their 21-7 win that 11 of their players returned to the Memorial Ground pitch to receive the adulation of the crowd. As the celebration was for avoiding relegation, it will not be followed by an open-top bus ride round the city.

The England lock Garath Archer - yet another yellow card against his name - was not among the 11, which was just as well since he is about to abandon Bristol for Newcastle just as he abandoned Newcastle for Bristol a year ago. Bristol's immediate priority, devolving on Alan Davies, Wales's old and their new coach, is to prevent an exodus of the rest of their internationals, and in this staying in the First Division will do no harm.

This is always assuming there will be relegation, because though the Rugby Football Union says so it is still one of the contentions held by the disputatious clubs. They now have the full support of their Cymric counterparts for the setting-up of a fully fledged Anglo-Welsh competition next season which will need 12 participants from each country.

In other words the Welsh are simply not interested in the RFU's ideas, which in any case have always been dependent on others - their own English clubs and neighbouring rugby unions - accepting what England wants without demur.

It is, at the very least, appalling psychology and the salutary upshot is the apparently imminent destruction of the Five Nations' Championship. England's expulsion, if it comes to it, has been approved by a meeting of the Irish RFU's executive.

After their misadventure in Bristol, Saracens are quite keen to find out the truth about relegation but Mark Evans, their coach, insists his players have never permitted themselves the luxury of believing that West Hartlepool and one other will, like it or not, be in next season's Second Division - or at any rate the one run by the RFU.

On the assumption that Gloucester, with, at best a depleted team, lose at Leicester on Wednesday, the second relegation place will come down to a straight fight between Gloucester and Saracens, with Sarries having to step into the Kingsholm bearpit next Saturday. This is a ferocious prospect and will not be a pretty sight. Rugby will be the winner? Evans was asked. "I doubt that very much."

If Saracens had performed at Bristol as they had against Sale and Bath they would surely have won, but then if they had done as they should by winning those previous games they would not even have had to beat Bristol.

This, though, is the land of might-have-beens and they had enough territory and enough opportunities during Saturday's first half to have built a more substantial lead than Bristol would have been capable of eradicating. Sarries do not have the ruthlessness that consistently wins matches, whether it is scoring tries as they present themselves, or lately in the fundamental necessity kicking their goals.

Poor Gareth Hughes has been through the mangle these past two Saturdays. Against Bath, who beat them only 21-15, he missed five from seven; against Bristol, he missed three penalties before the awesome duty was passed to Matthew Singer, who managed to convert the Saracens try and then missed a penalty of his own.

Bristol were not that much better, but they had Archer, another fit England forward in Mark Regan and the revivified recent England scrum-half Kyran Bracken, who between them were the essential difference. But it is unremittingly dour stuff; Saracens tried a few back moves, with Hughes at their fulcrum, but as far as Bristol were concerned back play might just as well have been something to be found on Mars.

They had done nothing, absolutely nothing, in the first half except for the first of Mark Tainton's three penalties until the prop, David Hinkins, of all people went on a dummying run into the Saracens 22 and put Bracken in for a try in injury time. In the second, of which they had a substantially improved share, the standard remained dire and even when Regan squeezed over at the corner the defending Saracens complained that he had been in touch-in-goal.

In between, Saracens had their moment of relief when Kris Chesney, a wing who is built but as yet does not play like Jonah Lomu, hammered into Ralph Knibbs to give Richard Hill his try. But thereafter, the gap now closed to an inviting half-dozen, the visitors from Michael Portillo's part of London had about as chance of winning as the Tories do in a by-election.

After that, all Bristol now have to worry about - apart from persuading all bar the annually fickle Archer to stay - is Archer himself, who added a fourth yellow card to the collection he has already built this season, three with Bristol and one with England A in Paris which did not preclude his later elevation to the senior team.

Archer, 21, was already due to appear before the Gloucestershire disciplinary panel tonight for two yellows. Now that he has three, the latest for stamping, he will in all probability be suspended not only for what remains of this season - not that Bristol any longer care - but also the beginning of his prodigal's return to Newcastle and the Second Division. He has gone for the money but you could call his conduct thoroughly unprofessional.

Bristol: Tries Bracken, Regan; Conversion Tainton; Penalties Tainton 3. Saracens: Try Hill; Conversion Singer.

Bristol: R Knibbs; B Breeze, S Martin, K Maggs, D Tiueti; M Tainton, K Bracken; A Sharp (capt), M Regan, D Hinkins, P Adams, G Archer, M Corry, E Rollitt, I Dixon.

Saracens: M Singer; K Chesney, J Buckton, S Ravenscroft, M Gregory; G Hughes, B Davies (capt); G Holmes, G Botterman, S Wilson, M Burrow, A Copsey (M Langley, 78), E Halvey (M Langley, 27-29), A Diprose, R Hill.

Referee: N Cousins (Dulwich).