Rugby Union: Bristol back in fashion

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The Independent Online
WIN, LOSE or draw, and for most of Bristol's match with Orrell yesterday all three results were possible before the home side eventually scraped through 29-19, the Memorial Ground was in celebratory mood.

The old place was awash with nostalgia. It was born-again Bristol's 4,000th game since the establishment of the club in 1888, and to mark the occasion there was a grand reunion of old players. There were many names and faces to conjure up memories of the days when Bristol were one of the most feared sides in the land. The oldest member yesterday was 88-year- old Bill Webley, who had played for the club just after the war. John Pullin, the club's most capped player and one of England's finest hookers, was there and so were other members of those great Bristol sides of the Sixties whose fluid style was a joy to watch, even for their hapless opponents.

Yesterday's opponents, Orrell, were fourth in Premiership Two, four points behind Bristol, and although they mounted a stern challenge they were much too courteous guests to spoil the party in the end. But it wasn't until Dean Dewdney's try in the third minute of injury time that Bristol could feel secure. The win, their sixth in a row, provided the club's longest winning sequence since the start of league rugby.

It was somehow appropriate that Orrell should be part of this memorable occasion. They are kindred spirits. Like Bristol they have been through difficult times of late but are starting to replace the blocks blown away by professionalism. Like Bristol their strength may have been sapped by the corrosive influence of the big spenders, but not their spirit. Both clubs have a strong local identity. People born and bred in Bristol are Bristolians and proud of it. Nobody has ever claimed to come from Wasps, Saracens or Harlequins. They may be members of the club but they can never experience the same sense of belonging.

It is this community spirit which so appealed to Bristol's new benefactor, Malcolm Pearce, who has helped rescue the club from bankruptcy. He hopes, that with careful stewardship, he can restore them to their former glory. If he is successful Bristol may well set the benchmark for other clubs come the day when common sense returns to a game which has, for the moment, taken leave of its sanity.

The first time I spoke to Pearce was on the telephone. "We are," he said, "about to lose Jeremy Guscott to rugby league. We have to find another source of income to keep him at Bath." At the time he was one of a number of hugely successful businessmen working behind the scenes at the Rec. He was the main provider of gainful employment for many of the club's leading players. Guscott was, even then, the flashiest gem in Bath's jewel- encrusted crown and the plot we hatched during that telephone conversation helped to launch Guscott's modelling career. If, in some small way, it also preserved this sublime talent for union then it was a call well made. To my mind, it was one of the best things we ever did during my six-year stint as the presenter of Rugby Special - Guscott, looking magnificent sashaying down the catwalk. The next week he was off to the Bahamas or somewhere equally as exotic on a fashion shoot

It wasn't just that Pearce found jobs for the boys. He made it his business to make the best use of their talents and temperaments. It was, if they were up to it, a job for life and very few let him down. Pearce has always believed that top quality rugby players are much in demand in the work- place. "They are self-disciplined, easily motivated, reliable and they understand the importance of team-work." Pearce has made it abundantly clear to his new charges at Bristol that there has to be a working life outside rugby, even for full-time professionals.

Realising that the quickest way of separating a fool from his money is the purchase of a rugby club, Pearce will not be following the path so recklessly taken by some owner-investors, although he concedes that finding the right formula is devilishly hard. "It is striking the balance between getting bums on seats and the cost of putting them there. Success on the field and big-name players are the most persuasive factors but the price of buying that success is very often too high."

Pearce and his coaching staff, headed by Bob Dwyer, are therefore working on developing their own talent. There is a rich supply in these parts from the local combination leagues and from Bristol University, an increasingly popular nursery for the country's most promising young players. One of their current prodigies, Sean Marsden, was playing yesterday. An 18-year- old full-back fresh out of Bristol Grammar School, Marsden scored a fine try after Paul Hull, still the genuine article in so much of what he does, had made ground inside the Orrell 22. Marsden also made a flashing run early in the first half but betrayed his inexperience when he was caught out of position for Gary Bell's try which gave Orrell the lead for the first time in the match.

Bristol's backs were handicapped throughout by their forwards' desire to dally too long in the close-quarter exchanges. By the time the ball was released there was nowhere for their backs to go. They did, however, score the try of the match when Mike Misson rounded his opposite number and sped fully 55 yards for the try. For much of the game, though, it was Orrell who looked the stronger. Their line-out, in which Charles Cusani was outstanding, was always superior and their running behind was sharp and inventive. But in the end the occasion demanded that Bristol should be the victors.

It was a good old-fashioned rugby day. It does no harm to re-visit the past, just so long as we don't stay there. Rugby, of course, hasn't much of a future if it totally ignores its past and the conjunction of the two at the Memorial Ground produced the perfect manifestation of the benefits that the one can bestow on the other.

Bristol: S Marsden (T Barlow, 67); M Misson, A Barnard, J Pritchard, A Larkin; P Hull (S Martin, 49), D Dewdney; D Hinkins, J Evans (capt, J Brownrigg, 40; N Watkins, 56), J Wring (P Lemoine, 62), A Charron, C Eagle, M Gabey, C Evans, M Bennett.

Orrell: D Lyon (capt); G Hope, M Oliver (G Bell, 15), P Hamer (A Unsworth, 40), J Smith; N Ryan, M Warr; J Cundick, R Rawlinson, S Turner, P Reess, C Cusani, G Russell, P Manley, M Lacey.

Referee: D Grashoff (Brackley).