Rugby Union: Brave new world coloured Cherry and White

PREMIERSHIP ONE: Bristol 25 Gloucester 38: Bristol mauled by reformed Gloucester as Wasps have edge in classic encounter and Canadian tames Falcons
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The Independent Online
IF BEAUTY is in the eye of the beholder, so too is ugliness on the rugby field. While Bob Dwyer, the Bristol coach and one of the union game's most prominent global citizens, was just a little upset - apoplectic, actually - about the prolonged pugilistic conflagration that broke out in the dying seconds of an invigorating West Country occasion, the more parochial John Fidler could scarcely believe that a Bristol-Gloucester match had made it into injury time before "going off at all meetings", to use the modern vernacular. "Violent? I've seen more violence at my wife's nursery school," pronounced Big Fids, the Cherry and White team manager. "Now in my day... "

Which merely served to underline the difference between worldly wisdom and local knowledge. Dwyer could hardly be expected to appreciate the uniquely unforgiving nature of a Gloucestershire derby at his first attempt, being a mere Wallaby legend from deepest Sydney. Fidler, on the other hand, played in dozens of the things, and never once returned to the dressing- room without having taken free delivery of a knuckle sandwich from some snarling ape of a Bristol forward. Eighty-four minutes before the first dust-up? The rival die-hards on the Memorial Ground terraces would have asked for a refund had the rugby itself not been so special.

The moral of this 63-point jamboree, which sent Gloucester to the top of the domestic pile for the first time since dinosaurs roamed the Cotswolds, was that the English game has, in this millennial season, finally grown too fast for the dedicated practitioners of 15-man skulduggery. And who injected the acceleration into Saturday's proceedings? Why, the visitors; those much-maligned triceratops types from Kingsholm. "Gloucester won the game because they were far quicker than us to the ball," conceded Dwyer. "Fair play to them."

Not that Gloucester fielded 15 Linford Christies; they brought their traditional muscle to bear up front, where Rob Fidler (son of John) and the former All Black Ian Jones generated some serious horsepower in the engine room, and also possessed brute strength in midfield, where Chris Yates revealed himself as a tackle-breaker of Lomu-esque proportions. Yet there was also a collective pace about the visitors that took the Memorial Ground faithful entirely by surprise and, more importantly, took the wind clean out of the Bristol sails. Both Yates and Tom Beim - remember Tom, an England wing in 1998? - crossed for clean-cut, set- piece tries in the opening half-hour, thereby demonstrating that uncomplicated moves performed at high speed can leave defences for dead, even in 1999.

"We are playing the new rugby," said Philippe Saint-Andre, the Gloucester coach, who uses the word "collective" so often that it has replaced "kick ahead, any head" as the Kingsholm mantra. Certainly, his side are playing a style of rugby entirely new to Gloucester; with explosive athletes like Jones, Phil Vickery and Trevor Woodman at the sharp end, Saint-Andre's front five resembles a state-of-the-art combine harvester rather than the single-gear tractor of old. Add to that the driving game of Steve Ojomoh, the physical presence of Ed Pearce, the recycling ability of Kingsley Jones and the hard New Zealand edge of Elton Moncrieff and Simon Mannix at half-back and it is little wonder that the Cherry and White threequarters are beginning to rock and roll.

According to Saint-Andre, the serial under-achievers of the Allied Dunbar Premiership are "not yet a good team". They are, however, beginning to push the boulder up the hill. "Last season, I think other sides do not respect us," said the former Tricolore captain in his fluent Franglais. "So I say to each player: 'You want respect? Then you must work, get fitter, play for the team rather than yourself'. And they begin to do this. We must get better each week, though, especially with our discipline. We give away 25 penalties today, while Bristol give away eight. It is impossible to win with this difference." But you did win, Philippe. "Yes. This is good for confidence."

Confidence is a commodity that Bristol do not have; not in sufficient quantities, at least. Seven points down inside 90 seconds, they allowed their more cohesive opponents to run them ragged in the opening exchanges. Even when they rediscovered their bearings and set their unashamedly physical pack driving into the soft underbelly of the visiting defence, they got it so spectacularly wrong that they conceded a try instead of scoring one themselves. Kingsley Jones' left-corner finish early in the second quarter was a heartbreaker, coming as it did from a poorly controlled ruck on the Gloucester line and two daft passes from Agustin Pichot and Barry Williams.

"It's a classic case of guys playing together without yet being a team," Dwyer said."We have no belief in ourselves until we realise there is nowhere to go but up." Which was pretty much the situation when Bristol began the second half deep in the smelly stuff at 6-30. Cue close-range tries from Dean Ryan, Jamie Mayer and Matthew Back in the space of 12 breathless minutes either side of the hour mark. Had a half-fit Henry Honiball been in any sort of nick with his goal-kicking, Bristol would have been points up rather than 30-25 down going into the last 10.

As it was, Mannix dropped a smart goal from a bullocking Yates rumble into the Bristol 22 - "I'm sure Yates is a pretty good player, but we made him look like a world-beater," groaned the defeated coach - and then, deep in time added on, the stand-off slid a kick to the right corner for Byron Hayward to top and tail it with a debut try. If there was an alarming absence of cover it was probably because half the home side were joining Ryan, their captain, in a fistic spectacular on their own 22. "Pichot was the victim of a cowardly punch, delivered well away from the ball, and Ryan simply did what I'd expect anyone to do in the event of one of his team-mates being attacked," Dwyer said.

Just for a second, Australia's finest sounded remarkably like John Fidler. Perhaps he is getting to grips with West Country life after all.

Bristol: Tries Ryan, Mayer, Back; Conversions Honiball 2; Penalties Honiball 2. Gloucester: Tries Yates, K Jones, Beim, Hayward; Conversions Mannix 3; Penalties Mannix 3; Drop goal Mannix.

Bristol: M Back; L Best, J Mayer, P Whittaker (J Ogilvie-Bull, h-t), S Marsden; H Honiball, A Pichot; P Johnstone, B Williams, D Crompton (P Lemoine, 72), O Booyse, S Morgan, C Evans, A Vander (C Short, 72), D Ryan (capt).

Gloucester: B Hayward; C Catling, T Fanolua (J Ewens, 77), C Yates, T Beim; S Mannix, E Moncrieff; S Simon (T Woodman, 70), C Fortey (N McCarthy, 84), A Deacon (P Vickery, 46), R Fidler (M Cornwell, 75), I Jones, S Ojomoh, K Jones (capt), E Pearce (P Glanville, 80).

Referee: S Lander (Liverpool).

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