Rugby Union: Dwyer's fight for the future

Bristol's Australian coach is prepared to grab Premiership One status either on the pitch tomorrow or via the boardroom.
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The Independent Online
IT IS NINE months since the sporting Titanic known as Bristol Rugby Football Club was hauled from the seabed in a salvage operation financed by Malcolm Pearce, supervised by Jack Rowell and managed by Bob Dwyer. It is perhaps the most capable, certainly the most experienced, back-room triumvirate brought together in a common cause since the game collided with the iceberg of professionalism four years ago.

In any normal sport, the ultimate success of this seven-figure rescue campaign would depend wholly on the outcome of the drama spread over the next 24 hours; desperate not to spring another leak and go down with all hands for the second time in a year, Bristol should be fighting for their future when they take on Worcester at the Memorial Ground tomorrow.

But rugby is not a normal sport; indeed, it is abnormal in the extreme. If the proud flat-cappers of Rotherham give Moseley a seeing-to of such unholy proportions at Clifton Lane this afternoon that they end up beating their rivals from the West Country to the one available automatic promotion place, Bristol will simply buy their way into the big time by purchasing London Scottish - or, rather, the Premiership One place currently occupied by that increasingly forlorn collection of Celtic ex-pats.

"We have the option to make the purchase, full stop," said an unapologetic Dwyer this week. "We'd far rather win the title and go up under our own steam, of course, but I have no problem whatsoever with the buy-out scenario if that is what it comes down to. There are a couple of clubs, one of them now very successful, who quite recently retained their First Division places only because the goalposts were moved in their favour at the last minute. We know from past experience that the Premiership One clubs could change the league format on a whim, no trouble at all. There isn't any fair or unfair in this climate."

Reasonable point. Bristol launched their semi-hostile bid for Scottish only because the diplomatic move towards a British League was gathering momentum and they feared that even if they won the Premiership Two title, they would not be promoted into anything worthwhile. They were adhering to the law of the jungle and would have been daft not to; if politics is a dirty business - Aneurin Bevan once described it "not as the arena of morals, but the arena of interests" - rugby politics has been, and remains, as black as pitch.

All the same, there is something rotten in the state of the union. If Bristol prevail over Rotherham and sell their option on the London Scottish shares, someone else - Worcester, perhaps, or Leeds - will inevitably pick up the commercial ball and run with it like William Webb Ellis on anabolic steroids. Poor London Scottish, who earned their place in the Premiership by beating Bristol home and away when it mattered last season, will find themselves sold down the river irrespective of the outcome of this weekend's matches.

And English First Division Rugby, the Premiership clubs' administrative body, will raise a glass of something decent in celebration of their demise. Slowly but surely, EFDR is moving towards a "minimum criteria" position: in everyday language, a system under which prospective top-flight clubs will have to issue guarantees on financial support, ground facilities, even crowd targets, before gaining admittance to the big time. Which is why Bristol, for all their nervousness this weekend, can plan confidently for the future.

"The potential here is obvious," said Dean Ryan, the former England No 8, who led Newcastle to last year's title before moving to the Memorial Ground midway through this campaign. "Our gates in the Second Division have rivalled many of those in the first, we drew 7,000 for a cup match with London Irish even though we were always going to be on the back foot, and we have an excellent stadium. As a platform on which to build success at club level, it is far stronger than anything I encountered either at Wasps or at Newcastle."

Dwyer sounded a similar note: "In terms of realising our potential - and the potential here is greater than in any other rugby city in England, including Leicester - we need First Division rugby. We have a hard core of followers who are unusually supportive, but it is the next level down we need to hit, the thousands of people who will turn out to see a local team playing well in the top division against the top opposition. If we get them on board, I can see a situation down the track where we're getting crowds of 20,000 for the big games."

That mass support has been lying dormant in Bristol and its union-obsessed environs for years. Sadly, so has the Bristol team. Dwyer knows that to make a decent fist of Premiership One competition next season, he must recruit like never before. He has made a start: if Ryan is a useful acquisition - he has made a complete recovery from a chronic neck condition and is ready to resume training - the excitement surrounding the imminent arrival of Jamie Mayer, the outstanding young Scottish centre, is equally well placed. Existing first-teamers have also made the desired impact, notably the Cambridge Blue Mark Robinson in midfield, the wing Luke Nabaro, the No 8 Mark Gabey and the born-and-bred Bristolian Alan Sharp, now back home from Coventry and propping his socks off.

But Dwyer needs more, much more, and the big signings are not easy to come by. Chris Wyatt would have been worth having, but the in-form Wales second row is staying put in Llanelli; Garath Archer, one of Ryan's Geordie proteges, is a distinct possibility but not yet a certainty; Kyran Bracken, who learned his trade at Bristol before heading for the bright lights of London, has resisted the lure of the Avon and re-signed for Saracens.

"Of course we'll need to strengthen," the coach agreed. "But just at the moment, I'm not looking too far past the Worcester match. This club is still very fragile in terms of performance; we've threatened to play really well on a number of occasions, but you have to remember that we built a team from scratch last August. And when you're not on a sound footing, you only need the tiniest thing to go wrong on the pitch to send you slipping back down the hill.

"Let's forget London Scottish and all the other stuff and concentrate on winning the title. It would give me a great deal of satisfaction to feel part of a group of people who struggled up from nothing and made a success of it. That's what it is all about. That's what we're looking at tomorrow."