Rugby Union: Bristol face last chance to survive

Arrival of coaching duo and a new owner offers fresh hope to dented pride of West Country club
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The Independent Online
BOB DWYER and Jack Rowell may not yet realise it, but they are about to embark on a construction project that would reduce the average Pharaoh to a nervous wreck and leave him contemplating the uncomfortable prospect of an early sarcophagus. For 100 years or more, proud Bristolians regarded their rugby club as the eighth wonder of the sporting world. Today, they consider it an embarrassment, a shambling dinosaur treading a dangerously thin line between irrelevance and extinction.

When Nick de Scossa, the incoming chief executive of the newly formed Bristol Rugby Ltd, laid out his blueprint for recovery at the Memorial Ground on Thursday, he did so with a surge of optimism tempered only by a determination to make his sums add up. His optimism was not wholly misplaced either; Dwyer and Rowell are, after all, towering figures of the rugby union world, with their own five-star suites in the coaching pantheon.

But the Lazarus card has been played too often over the last decade to stem the tide of disaffection. The Bristol rugby landscape, once the most bustling and businesslike in Britain, has been laid waste and according to Ed Morrison, who arranges the fixtures for his local Bristol Harlequins club when not actively engaged in his more familiar role as the world's leading international referee, it could take years of unstinting grass- roots effort to re-establish the city at the apex of the union pyramid.

"I get the feeling there is something very wrong in this part of the country," he admits. "In all the time I've been involved in local rugby - and we're talking decades - I don't think I've ever seen so few people playing the game here. On the face of it, the clubs are still there, but many of them struggle to field a second team, let alone a third or fourth XV. The failures in the shop window have left the fabric of the game in this city in tatters. I hope and pray it can be stitched back together but it's going to take a tremendous amount of work."

Morrison's concerns are echoed by Phil Adams, the recently retired Bristol second row who, under the last management regime, took it upon himself to attempt a single-handed restoration of the severed links between the Memorial Ground and the wider rugby population.

In many ways, Adams symbolises the lost spirit, the lost traditions of the game in Bristol; indeed, he was the last major first-team player to work his way to the top via the junior club scene, graduating from the BAC combination side in 1985. He was the local equivalent of the Welsh miner or the New Zealand farmer. When the call to duty finally came, he was ready and willing.

"When I arrived at the Memorial Ground, the club was self-sufficient in terms of players. There were 20 Bristolians in the senior squad and we had the pick of the young talent from St Brendan's and Colston's, two of the greatest rugby schools in the country. It was not unusual to go 30 games unbeaten. We were the best, simple as that.

"All I really wanted to do was play for Bristol, although I never thought I had a cat's hope in hell of doing so. There used to be a big home game against Cardiff on a Wednesday night and, along with the rest of the BAC boys, I'd rush home from work and head straight for the ground. It meant everything because it was our world. If I'd been born or brought up anywhere else in England, I probably wouldn't have picked up a rugby ball at all. In Bristol, it was automatic.

"Somehow, all that has been eroded. BAC have gone from running five teams to having 20 members. The combination clubs don't give a bugger whether Bristol win or lose; in fact, some of them actually want Bristol to lose so they can have a good laugh. It upsets me to say so, but we have only ourselves to blame. By allowing a culture of complacency to develop, the Bristol club failed the city and allowed others, particularly Bath, to grow strong on our own resources."

Adams has his own imaginative ideas on how to win back the hearts and minds of the lost souls and he is hoping against hope that the new regime will give him an opportunity to deliver the goods. He has one or two significant recent successes in his favour: "Bath have a formal academy link with Colston's School but I've managed to buck that particular trend by talking three good 'uns into coming to Bristol," he says enthusiastically.

Judging by his dignified efforts on behalf of a redundant professional squad over the last few traumatic weeks of receivership, Dwyer and Rowell could certainly make use of his talents.

"Apart from anything else, a big public relations exercise needs to be done here," Adams says. "There is a lot of disenchantment, a lot of vitriol flying around and so many questions that need answering. But the Rowells and Dwyers of this world are serious people with serious reputations. It's fantastic that they're here. Now we have to get out there amongst the people and ensure that their expertise doesn't go to waste. It's our last chance, really."

The Last Chance Saloon, in fact. Bristol have been regulars in that particular watering hole for more years than anyone cares to remember and it is not too fanciful to suggest that Malcolm Pearce, their new investor and chairman, is buying the final round. After this, there will be nothing left behind the bar. It is a clear case of "Time gentlemen, please".