Rugby Union: Bristol promoted in top drawer fashion

Bristol 21 Worcester 14
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THEY MADE desperately hard work of it; indeed, there were agonising moments when it seemed as though it would be the worst weekend for the West Country since the Monmouth Rebellion. Yet, having flirted with the kind of rugby suicide that had cost Bath so dear 24 hours previously, Bristol heaved their resident New Zealand lock, Chad Eagle, over the Worcester line in the second minute of injury time to wrap up a return to the top flight of the Allied Dunbar Premiership at the first time of asking.

As a rugby city, Bristol deserves nothing less. The automatic nature of its team's promotion may raise more questions than it answers - what happens to London Scottish is anyone's guess, now that the Memorial Grounders have no need to exercise their buy-out option - and Bob Dwyer's side will soak up an awful lot of stick in Premiership One unless the coach buys big over the summer.

But the best part of 7,500 people turned out to support the side yesterday afternoon and the domestic game can ill afford to squander that sort of captive audience.

Mind you, Bristol very nearly squandered the game. They were dominant enough up front, where Jim Brownrigg ruled the line-out roost and Alan Sharp made Worcester hop at the set-piece, but as Dwyer readily conceded, they "didn't do anything wonderful".

What they did do, both yesterday and throughout the preceding eight and a half months, was fight tooth and nail for every loose ball and every last point. "We've done it by our fingertips and that says something about us," said the coach.

"We're not going to walk into the First Division and make a pitch for the crown," he continued. "It will take two years to get up to speed, but if we make the necessary improvements and buy well, we'll be in there competing in the third year. We have to sit down this week and start thinking about who does what next season: is this guy capable of the step up, is that guy worth bringing into the equation?" With Dean Ryan and Jamie Mayer definitely in the frame, and Garath Archer considering a move from Newcastle, a useful start has already been made.

Bristol played the first half into a fresh breeze and attended Dwyer's interval lecture two points to the good at 8-6, thanks to the first of Michael Horak's three penalties and a pushover try from Christian Evans on the half-hour. They dominated the second half, too, Luke Nabaro, a Hong Kong wing from Fiji, if that makes sense, came within millimetres of a hat-trick of tries, but the nerve-ends were still raw as the clock ticked down, thanks to a remarkable score from Nick Baxter that brought the visitors back at 11-11.

Suddenly, the West Countrymen were in rats' alley. On came Derek Eves, who first played at the Memorial Ground some 13 years ago, to drive a few mauls and pop a few passes and, as a result, they applied enough pressure to earn Horak his final penalty and Eagle his one-metre charge to glory.

How different from this time last season, when Bristol got the last few minutes of their play-off against London Scottish wholly and desperately wrong.

For all that, it would not be rugby without a dose of boardroom politics. Malcolm Pearce, the Bristol owner, revealed in the aftermath of victory that relations with Bristol Rovers, the owners of the ground, had plumbed such depths his club would consider leaving their traditional home and, possibly, agree a ground-share with Bristol City at Ashton Gate.

"No one is going to hold us over a barrel and, if we're going to leave the Memorial Ground, it's best to leave now," he said. These days, winning on the field is the easy part.

Bristol: Tries C Evans, Eagle; Conversion Horak; Penalties Horak 3. Worcester: Try Baxter; Penalties Le Bas 3.

Bristol: M Horak; L Nabaro, G Leaupepe, J Pritchard, B Breeze; G Baber, D Dewdney; A Sharp, J Evans, P Lemoine, C Eagle, M Gabey, J Brownrigg, C Evans, M Bennett (capt, D Eves 64).

Worcester: R Le Bas; P Holford, D Hughes, A McLaughlin, N Baxter; J Lofthouse (J Liley 62), B Harvey (B Fenley 49); N Lyman, G Houston (D Ball 64), S Turner (M Linnett 57), C Raymond (capt), S Lloyd (R Denhardt 45), E Orgee, J Jenner, R Hilton-Jones (P Manley 49).

Referee: S Lander (Liverpool).