Rugby Union: Enthusiasm returns to booming Bristol

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The Independent Online
SIT DOWN, take a deep breath and prepare yourself for a shock. English rugby union has produced its first good news story of a season already stained by the blood of countless boardroom skirmishes. Astonishingly enough, it concerns Bristol, the original bad-vibe downbeats of the Allied Dunbar Premiership. Less than two months after emerging from the dark depths of receivership, the club is celebrating its brightest set of economic indicators since the onset of professionalism.

Bristol have taken around pounds 77,000 in season ticket receipts in recent weeks - indeed, 150 new subscribers signed up during the course of last Saturday's 50-point victory over Fylde - and latest figures suggest the membership will soon pass the 1,000 mark. Those pickings are unexpectedly rich, given that the Memorial Grounders were relegated from the top flight last season and, for the first time in well over a century, find themselves denied competitive access to Gloucester, Leicester and Northampton.

"The Bristol public has been magnificent," said Andy Brassington, the club's marketing manager, yesterday. "The people here have always had an instinctive love of rugby and that support and enthusiasm is beginning to show itself again after some very lean years. With all due respect to the previous management regime, I think people know quality when they see it. Bob Dwyer and Jack Rowell are serious operators."

Dwyer is trading on his impeccable Wallaby credentials in an effort to recruit David Knox, the former Australian Test stand-off, and success on that front would send shivers throughout the length and breadth of Allied Dunbar Two, as well as all the right signals to the sporting public. "Bob has some tremendous contacts and I suspect we'll be a stronger outfit a few weeks down the road," said Brassington, who lost his job when the club went to the wall, only to return when Malcolm Pearce, a local millionaire, put his hand in his pocket last month.

Reports that supporters might be forced to shell out almost as much for a World Cup ticket as Pearce paid for an entire club were denied yesterday by Keith Rowlands, the chief executive of next year's Cardiff-based competition. Rowlands said the most expensive seats at the new Millenium Stadium during the pool phase would be pounds 50, a mere 25 per cent of the cost quoted by ticket agencies in London. He agreed, however, that tickets for the final might reach pounds 150.

Jason Leonard, a front-row veteran of England's last two World Cup campaigns, appears before a Rugby Football Union disciplinary panel tonight following his dismissal for stamping on Northampton's Budge Pountney last weekend.

Shane Howarth, the former All Black full-back, has declared himself available for Wales, whose coach, Graham Henry, happens to be a fellow New Zealander. "He asked me about my eligibility and I told him that while one of my grandfathers was born in Lancashire, the other was born in Wales," said Howarth, who plays for Sale.

Henry will be sorely tempted to pull his countryman into the fold, especially as Kevin Morgan, last season's first-choice No 15, has broken his thumb and will be sidelined for a good six weeks.

Two genuinely Welsh rugby league players, Iestyn Harris and Anthony Sullivan, are also said to be in the new coach's sights.