Rugby: Old boys produce old style

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You name them, Bristol have lost them: Barnes, Webb, De Glanville, Eves, Sharp, Archer, Bracken, Arwel Thomas and an entire army of lesser lights have beaten a retreat from an increasingly melancholy Memorial Ground over the last dozen years, leaving the sleeping giants of English rugby to rot in their bed of blinkered complacency.

Somehow, Bristol have never come to grips with the Vision Thing. League rugby took them unawares, the fledgling market place caught them with their pants down and, when above-board professionalism finally came, they were all out to lunch. A great side for a hundred years, they saw no reason why they should not continue to be great even when the reasons were obvious to everyone else.

But hark, does the giant stir? The last 23 minutes of Saturday's match with Sale, during which they turned round a 24-13 deficit to win 34-24, bordered on the vintage. Memorial Ground greats like Alan Morley, Richard Harding and Mike Rafter would have detected elements of the good old days in the fast, aggressive, dynamic finale to an error-ridden but curiously compelling contest. A try for Josh Lewsey, the new harem-scarem full-back from Bristol University, and a brace for David Tiueti, a tough-nut Tongan wing whose idea of a sidestep is to run over an opponent rather than straight through him, were enough to do for Sale - and, quite possibly, the Cheshire club's designs on a place in next year's Heineken Cup, too.

Alan Davies, the Bristol coach, considered the events of the final quarter to have been of "massive significance" for his club. On the face of it, his comment smacked of exaggeration. Bristol remain racing certainties for a bottom four finish, which will mean a dangerous flirtation with the new play-off system, and it is also true to say that two of their most effective performers on Saturday, Robert Jones and Richie Collins, are as likely to produce a bus pass as a scoring one.

But Davies is a past master at making the most of limited resources and, if he can nurture the likes of Lewsey, Fraser Waters, Kevin Maggs and Barry McConnell while keeping the Regans, Shaws, Corrys and Corkerys on board, Bristol just might rediscover the art of punching their historical weight. If, however, he loses one or more of those big guns during the summer recess, Division One will be no place to be next season.

Simon Shaw's contract runs out at the end of the season, Irish sides are dangling a whole crop of carrots in front of David Corkery in an effort to lure him back to home turf, and even though Mark Regan is the very epitome of a one-club man, England's hooker is well aware of the hazards of plying his trade at an unfashionable and, more to the point, unsuccessful outfit.

"It is difficult to predict what will happen," acknowledged Davies. "In the professional era, players look to achieve financial security. That is understandable. But if they are offered extremely large amounts of money to move clubs, I don't necessarily think we should become involved in a Dutch auction to keep them. I have great admiration for a player like Regan, though; he is a great club man who has already demonstrated loyalty to Bristol and I would be very upset if he went, even for the half a million he is worth."

The bonus for Bristol on Saturday was that they achieved their seasonal double over Sale without the services of their three current international forwards. It was Collins who brought a touch of Test class to their back row; bald of pate he may be, but the 35-year-old Welshman made life distinctly hairy for his opposite number, Dylan O'Grady.

All that seasoned sophistication rubbed off on the rest of an unfamiliar Bristol pack and on Eben Rollitt in particular. Rollitt had one of his bullocking days at No 8 and he was effective enough to get under the skin of John Mitchell, the Sale player-coach. He rode a ferocious coat-hanger tackle from the tough New Zealander to help set up Tiueti's first try on the hour, clattered his rival with the mother of all rib-crushers a few minutes later - big glare from Mitchell, big grin from Rollitt - and then made the crucial hard yards beneath the visitors' posts to enable Martin Corry to sneak Tiueti in at the right corner for the wrap-up score.

Mitchell was in a state of serious strop come the end and understandably so. The man from Waikato has spent all season honing Sale's competitive edge, and the way his charges frittered away what should have been a winning platform would have exasperated the most gentle of New Zealand souls.

Chris Yates' straightforward knife-through-butter try in the second minute suggested that the absence of Sale's first-choice half-backs, Dewi Morris and Simon Mannix, might not prove too much of an inconvenience and, when Mallinder exposed Lewsey's defensive frailty to run in from 30 metres midway through the third quarter, the visitors' Heineken Cup hopes appeared to have been suitably refreshed.

It was Bristol who drank deepest from the well, however, and that draught may yet prove an elixir. Davies believes five wins from six end-of-season league games will give his side an even chance of escaping trial by play- off and while that is a "big ask", as the Australians say, it is not entirely unrealistic.

Bristol: Tries Tiueti 2, Eagle, Lewsey; Conversions Burke 4; Penalties Burke 2. Sale: Tries Yates, Mallinder; Conversion Verbickas; Penalties Verbickas 4.

Bristol: J Lewsey; D Tiueti, F Waters, K Maggs, B Breeze; P Burke (P Hull, 80), R Jones; D Hinkins, B McConnell, K Fulman, P Adams, C Eagle, M Corry (capt), E Rollitt, R Collins.

Sale: J Mallinder (capt); D Rees, C Yates, D Wright, S Verbickas; J Baxendell, J O'Reilly; M Driver, S Diamond, P Winstanley, D Baldwin, J Fowler, D Erskine (N Ashurst, 67), J Mitchell, D O'Grady.

Referee: S Piercy (Goole).