Rugby Union: Battling Bristol wary of the wasteland

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The Independent Online
Northampton. . .16

Bristol. . . . . 6

THE EVIDENCE is limited but scarcely encouraging. There is unlikely to be too much joy around league rugby this season. Pressure, rather than grace under it, will be the keynote.

Not that this is too surprising in a season in which there is more to lose than ever before. Four sides - a third of the division - face the drop to the financial wasteland, and history suggests that Bristol will be one of them.

After all, they have finished outside the bottom four just once in the league's five years, and they ended last season losing four of their last five games. So it is just as well they belong to the bunk school of history. Four straight victories - scoring at least 35 points a time - put what is undoubtedly a bigger and better outfit in the mood for a real tilt at a fancied side.

And that is what Northampton certainly are. Expectations for the expanding club are simply huge, and the determination to live up to them obvious. Add the confusion of the new laws and the result - a wildly ferocious opening and a staccato game of raw power and little freedom - is all too predictable. As was the result once it became clear that Bristol's new stand-off, Andy May, was not as good a penalty kicker as John Steele.

In playing terms there was not much to choose between the two sides, which will be more encouraging to Bristol than Northampton. They have real presence up front and Bob Armstrong has given a feisty back row the power to hurt as well as annoy. But the invention behind, especially in the second half when they were committed to 'catch-up' rugby was never sharp enough.

May, for whom the word chunky was invented, kicked well from his hands but did not really know what else to do with them, which meant the subtle skills and pace of Paul Hull at full-back were as relevant as a Ferrari in a stock car race.

Hull still had a happier day than his opposite number, the much-heralded Nick Beal. High Wycombe's stand-off last year was catapulted into the England sevens squad two weeks ago, catching the eye with his whippet speed. He may be the new Duckham, he is not, yet, a First Division full-back. Graeme Hick would have done better under the high ball.

Elsewhere Northampton would have been satisfied but little more. Martin Bayfield towered over the line-out, though all too often illegally. Like Bristol, things fell apart behind and it is only a matter of time before Matthew Dawson reverts from centre to his England Schools position of scrum-half.

At least Northampton produced the day's one memorable moment. A free-kick (undroppable at goal under the new laws) saw John Olver spin blind away from several decoys, and feed for Tim Rodber to hurtle over at top pace. Simple, and wonderful.

Northampton: Try Rodber; Conversion Steele; Penalties Steele 3. Bristol: Penalties May 2.

Northampton: N Beal; F Packman, M Dawson, R MacNaughton, H Thorneycroft; J Steele, D Elkington; G Baldwin, J Olver (capt), G Pearce, J Etheridge, M Bayfield, T Rodber, W Shelford, R Tebbutt.

Bristol: P Hull; K Morgan, D Wring, R Knibbs, L Lloyd; A May, K Bracken; A Sharp, M Regan, D Hinkins, P Adams, A Blackmore, R Armstrong, C Barrow, D Eves (capt).

Referee: C Rees (London).