Rugby Union: Bristol succumb to the inevitable

Bristol 15 London Scottish 17 London Scottish win 46-40 on aggregate
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The Independent Online
"AT SOME point in the life cycle of virtually every organisation, its ability to succeed in spite of itself runs out." So said an eminent American educationalist and the man obviously knew a thing or two. Bristol's success in maintaining their elite status throughout a decade of masochistic incompetence had been based on luck rather than judgement and it was inevitable that the last few drops of good fortune would one day evaporate.

That day dawned on Saturday as London Scottish, much the calmer and more coherent side over 160-odd minutes of neurotic play-off rugby, applied the finishing touches to a long and agonising fall from grace. There were poignant scenes at the final whistle - Ben Breeze, the sparky Bristol left wing, was utterly inconsolable and had to be led from the field by the coaching staff - but in all fairness, the writing had been on the wall for so long that half of it pre-dated the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Bristol would not have stayed afloat at the weekend had they been swimming in the Dead Sea, for they have developed new and foolproof methods of drowning. They must now contemplate the peculiar pressures of at least one season and probably more in Allied Dunbar Two, an anonymous tributary of the Premiership mainstream capable of swamping its inhabitants in stagnant water. The Memorial Ground could be an expensively refitted oxbow lake by the turn of the century.

Good players are certain to leave; Josh Lewsey intends to be on the first train out of Temple Meads and there will be top-flight interest in two fellow England Under-21s, Michael Worsley and Jim Brownrigg. By the same yardstick, recruitment will be more difficult than ever, not only because Bristol's television money will now be halved to pounds 250,000 but because life in the Second Division is no life at all for an ambitious professional.

"It will be a dogfight, that's for sure," admitted their captain, Robert Jones, whose tired and tentative performance against the Exiles symbolised the wider malaise that has condemned a once aristocratic club to life below stairs. Jones also accepted that some of the rival dogs will be of the greyhound variety; bankrolled by lashings of new money, the likes of Worcester and Leeds will be fast out of the traps next season.

At least David Egerton, Bristol's intelligent and authoritative assistant coach, managed to sound a positive note in the aftermath of Saturday's fall. "Logically, the players we will encounter in Premiership Two will be less able than those in Premiership One, whether it be in terms of skill level, size, pace or speed of thought," he said. "Therefore, we should not find ourselves exposed as we have been these last few months. I'm not saying it will be easy, far from it. But the problems we confront should be solvable.

"The big question, of course, is whether we will be given the financial muscle to keep the players we want to keep and then go into the market to bolster our squad. I'm assured those resources will be available. But it's a balancing act, isn't it? I want to look at the wider picture and build on the basis of a five year plan. But there is also a 'now' element; we have to hit our targets tomorrow and the day after. If we don't manage to do that, we won't be here in five years."

There was plenty of business-babble from the victorious Exiles, too; Simon Holmes, almost as influential a tactician as he was a scavenger for the loose ball, spoke of recruitment, of restructuring, of research and development, his attempts at conversation constantly interrupted by the need to avoid strategically aimed champagne corks. "We know we have to strengthen certain areas of the squad," he acknowledged.

What Scottish really need, of course, is a time machine. Take the pack, for instance; John Allan is 34, Paul Burnell 32, Chris Tarbuck three months short of 30, Holmes himself 31. The blue-shirted evergreens gave everything of themselves on Saturday - the rucks would have put scars on your chest, as well as a few hairs - but the thought of scaling such heights of intensity week in, week out from September to next May will make strong but venerable men go weak at the knees.

There will be no shortage of wit and imagination, though; as more than one Bristol old boy pointed out in a funereal clubhouse afterwards, the visitors played all the rugby that really mattered. Their try, the only one of a frantic game, was a case in point, Jamie Cameron quietly vacating his stand-off position to lurk deep behind his centres and then racing blind from a scrum to give Conan Sharman the scoring feed.

With Iain McAusland generally matching Paul Burke on the goal-kicking front, the outcome boiled down to the quality of the Scottish defence. It was more than good enough, thanks to a mighty effort from Holmes, Tarbuck and Simon Fenn in the back row. Fenn may have lost part of an ear at Bath earlier in the season, but he kept his head at Bristol. His close-quarter tackling, wrestling and mauling was invaluable.

Only once did Bristol threaten a game-breaking score, Burke losing the ball over the line as David Millard clattered him from behind with the original tackle from nowhere. "Fair play to him," smiled Burke, sadly. "I thought I was there, then 'boom'. I suppose it summed up our season."

Wrong. The moment that symbolised Bristol's campaign was their very last in Premiership One. A converted try away from deliverance, they established a prime attacking scrum on the Scottish 22 as the clocked ticked over into the fourth minute of injury time. Unbelievably, they asked Brownrigg, a supremely athletic No 8 with the physical dimensions of a stick insect, to perform the ball-carrying duties and he was duly consumed for breakfast by the Scottish midfield. Finito.

"You only have to keep the ball to win a game of rugby," said one moist- eyed Bristol stalwart with a sorry shake of the head. "We just don't seem to think any more." Hopefully, the last person out of the Memorial Ground on Saturday thought to switch off the lights.

Bristol: Penalties: Burke 5. London Scottish: Try: Sharman; Penalties: McAusland 3; Drop goal: McAusland.

Bristol: P Hull; D Yapp, K Maggs, S Martin, B Breeze; P Burke, R Jones (capt); M Worsley (J Wring, 67), F Landreau, K Fullman, C Eagle, A Charron, D Corkery (E Rollitt, 67), J Brownrigg, C Short.

London Scottish: I McAusland; R Todd, R Davies, R Eriksson (capt), C Sharman; J Cameron (C Wright, 34), D Millard; P Johnstone, J Allan, P Burnell, R Hunter, M Watson (E Jones, 71), S Fenn, C Tarbuck, S Holmes.

Referee: G Hughes (Cheshire).

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