Rugby Union: Burke's boot calms Bristol

Bristol 19 Bedford 12 Bristol win 39-23 on aggregate
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The Independent Online
How the mighty are relieved. Bristol, for whom reputation has outstripped achievement for well over a decade, successfully retained their seat at the high table of English rugby after a compelling play-off scrap with Bedford at the Memorial Ground yesterday.

The question now is whether they will retain their most valuable assets, for if Mark Regan and Simon Shaw, their two Lions, break camp and head for pastures new, another neurotic flirtation with relegation may well be on the cards this time next year.

Leicester, the Pilkington Cup champions, are within touching distance of Shaw, who is understandably tempted by the prospect of building a club partnership with Martin Johnson, his engine-room workmate at Test level. Wasps, the Courage champions, are also chasing Shaw's signature and consider themselves favourites to land their quarry. Regan, meanwhile, is being courted by Bath and it would be easier for Bristol to plug a black hole than fill the gaps created by those two.

While the aggregate score over the two legs looks comfortable enough from this distance, Bristol were by no means out of the woods until Paul Burke, a tentative kicker on this occasion, landed his third penalty a dozen minutes from time. The centre Kevin Maggs then fastened on to a loose ball in the Bedford 22 and careered over for a last-minute try.

Bristol had settled quickly, Robert Jones launching Martin Corry and Maggs upfield in a spectacular opening assault in the second minute. And although Paul Hull was held up on the line, Burke slotted a straightforward three-pointer awarded against the visitors for offside.

Yet Bedford were so cleverly controlled and cajoled by Paul Turner - rugby's answer to Gordon Strachan - that it was no surprise when Andy Matchett slipped away for a try in the right corner. Another score then and an upset would have been on.

It was not to be. Corry, the Bristol captain, crossed from close range eight minutes into the second half and Burke delivered a hammer-blow penalty from 44 metres to give his side some precious breathing space.

Even though Jeff Probyn, the grizzled England front-row veteran, was driven over for his second try of the rubber just past the hour, the nine- point deficit from the first leg last Wednesday was too much for Bedford to reel in.

The result left Frank Warren, the Bedford moneybags, pounds 50,000 light, but that will soon be the least of his problems. Turner remains as distinctive and imaginative as ever but, at 38, the legs are going. He will take an awful lot of replacing.

Bristol: Tries Corry, Maggs; Penalties Burke 3. Bedford: Tries Matchett, Probyn; Conversion Rayer.

Bristol: J Lewsey; P Hull, F Waters, K Maggs, B Breeze; P Burke, R Jones; D Hinkins, M Regan, K Fulman, C Eagle (P Adams, 73), S Shaw, M Corry (capt), E Rollitt (D Corkery, 68), R Collins.

Bedford: M Rayer; P Hewitt (P Allen, 61), B Whetstone, M Oliver (S McCurrie, 69), R O'Neill; P Turner (capt), A Matchett (D Edwards, h-t); C Boyd, P Simmonds, J Probyn, S Platford, N Hadley, S Murray, R Winters, J Paramore.

Referee: S Lander (Liverpool).