Rugby Union: Gabey gives Bristol hope

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Bristol 19 London Irish 43

NOW THAT Dean Ryan is safely installed at the Memorial Ground alongside that renowned scrummaging theorist Mike Fry, who makes Ryan look like Postman Pat, Bristol are unlikely to lose many fights. Unfortunately for the West Countrymen, they did not get within punching distance of London Irish for a full hour in this Tetley's Bitter Cup match, by which time the Exiles were well out of binocular range with seven tries, five of them brilliant, in the bag.

Still, Ryan has some raw material to work with in his new role as Bob Dwyer's forwards coach, much of it contained in the formidably athletic frame of Mark Gabey, a No 8 blessed with enough pace and size and attitude to thrive at Premiership One level next season, assuming the politicians allow Bristol in. Gabey pocketed the man of the match plaudits in yesterday's fourth round cup tie and if that was an outrageous slight on Steve Bachop, whose visionary expertise at stand- off underpinned the visitors' hugely entertaining victory, there was much to recommend in the Australian's performance.

"We drew the second half 19-all and I'm happy to settle for that," said Dwyer, who also acknowledged that London Irish were, along with the more pragmatic Leicester, the form horses in this season's title race. It was a big occasion for the new Bristol, who had spent the previous week virtually demanding a place among English rugby's professional elite. Four tries and 24 points adrift at the break, a big embarrassment was on the cards.

To all intents and purposes, the game was dead and buried inside the first 13 minutes; Bachop and Niall Woods combined to give Conor O'Shea the cleanest of opening strikes and Bachop then orchestrated a prolonged assault on a ponderous Bristol defence to give Woods his fifth try in six days. Another millimetre-perfect cut-out pass from Bachop sent Brendan Venter in for the first of his two tries and before half-time, Richard Kirke claimed a more prosaic score by working himself onto the end of a spinning, churning maul.

When Jake Boer wrestled another five points out of Bristol from close range, a 60-pointer look guaranteed. But Gabey upped the ante in the Bristol pack, Simon Martin began to work the odd move in midfield and when Jim Brownrigg, a stick insect of a second row with more attacking instincts than muscle, replaced Chad Eagle in the 52nd minute, the home side discovered the joys of continuity. Gareth Baber scored one try from scrum-half, and would have bagged a second but for Malcolm O'Kelly's illegal tackle - to which referee Chris Rees awarded a penalty try - and Mark Bennett, a breathless operator on the flank, snatched a third. It was not enough to win, but sufficient to save face.

Nick de Scossa, the Bristol chief executive, has confirmed that the club had made a bid for 100 per cent of London Scottish shares and that, if successful, a new club would arise from the merger and immediately take over London Scottish's remaining Premiership One fixtures. "We're operating within the law," he said. "We would have two squads - Bristol and London Scottish - and it would be up to Bob Dwyer to decide who stays and who goes."

Bristol: Tries Baber, Penalty Try, Bennett; Conversions Hull 2. London Irish: Tries: Venter 2, O'Shea, Woods, Kirke, Boer, Bishop; Conversions Woods 4.

Bristol: P Hull; M Misson, G Leaupepe (J Pritchard, 63), C Hassan, A Larkin; S Martin, G Baber; S Emms, D Tamati, J Wring (P Lemoine, 61), C Eagle (capt, J Brownrigg, 52), G Giles, A Charron, M Gabey, M Bennett.

London Irish: C O'Shea (capt); J Bishop, N Burrows, B Venter (R Todd, 60), N Woods; S Bachop, K Putt; N Hatley (M Worsley, 60), R Kirke (M Howe, 60), K Fullman, R Strudwick, M O'Kelly, J Boer, K Spicer, R Gallacher.

Referee: C Rees (London).