Back in the days of yore, when men were men and proper punch-ups were two a penny, Harlequins were renowned not to say despised for their reluctance to field a first team on their winter visits to the West Country. "You'll never guess who isn't playing today," Jack Rowell would say, in tones of deepest irony, to his Bath team on receiving news of a suddenly-changed opposition line-up. And the assembled multitude would reply, in unison: "Will Carling, by any chance?"
Yesterday, Quins duly arrived in Bristol with a second-string combination. It was predictable enough. For one thing, the temperatures were down around freezing; for another, their interest in the Heineken Cup was purely academic, having lost to the same opposition in London eight days previously. David Strettle, perhaps the most elusive attacking runner in England, was among their number, but there were precious few fellow top-rankers keeping him company.
They did not fold, though Will Skinner, their occasional captain, scrapped as though his life depended on it and the game was in its 80th minute before Bristol put the outcome beyond doubt, Alex Clarke and Roy Winters driving over the line from the traditional tight-forward's distance of three inches. Even then, it was a moot point as to which of the teams was more satisfied with its afternoon's work. The home side won, but fell short of the bonus-point victory they craved; the away side lost, but rediscovered some heart and soul after a catalogue of capitulations.
Brian Ashton, generally expected to be reappointed as England's head coach at a meeting of the Rugby Football Union's management board on Wednesday, was in the audience, as was the new Wales coach Warren Gatland. Ashton's spirits are rarely lifted by club rugby, much of which he dismisses as one-dimensional garbage, and it is reasonable to suggest that the highlight of his trip to the Memorial Ground was being joined in the directors' box by the Bristol mascot a man in a bear outfit, complete with a headpiece the size of the SS Great Britain.
Still, he had a better time than Dan Ward-Smith. The Bristol No 8, still uncapped but far from the worst back-rower around, would probably have made the World Cup squad but for a dislocated kneecap. Having completed the long road back to fitness, he could have used a decent performance in front of the top brass. In the event, he departed just after the interval with a busted hand. The forthcoming Six Nations Championship appears beyond his grasp, in more ways than one.
Bristol also lost Mark Regan, their principal hooker, with what appeared to be a neck problem, and David Blaney, his understudy, with a suspected broken ankle. "It's costing us, this competition," said Richard Hill, the head coach, who lost a couple of senior forwards in the opening fixture at Cardiff Blues. "Is it worth it? Yes, I think so. Our chances of qualifying for the knock-out phase are still pretty good, although we've thrown away two bonus points in these matches against Quins. It was a case of 'point dropped' today, but we can only blame ourselves. We'd talked about attacking them up front, but were strangely reluctant to do it in the first half. Rugby hasn't changed in hundreds of years: you go forward and suck in the defence before chucking it wide. What did we do? Chuck it wide before going forward."
It was not one of the great Heineken Cup occasions, by a very long chalk. The first period ended scoreless entirely appropriate, given the outbreak of butterfingeritis affecting both sides and was illuminated only by a running feud between Jason Hobson, a tight-head prop with rich potential as a pantomime villain, and Tani Fuga, who took great exception to being clapped every time he made a mistake and identified Hobson as the applauder-in-chief.
Having received both barrels from Hill at the break, Bristol opened the scoring immediately on the resumption when Anthony Elliott, a strong-running debutant at right wing, combined with Rob Higgitt to give David Lemi a sight of the line in the left corner. Quins replied instantly when Tom Williams, limping from the early moments, managed to take advantage of Shaun Perry's embarrassing failure to deal with an innocuous box kick from Simon Keogh, but once the former All Black forward Andrew Blowers replaced the stricken Ward-Smith, there was a decisive shift in favour of the hosts.
The Aucklander was heavily implicated in Blaney's close-range try on 53 minutes, salvaging some usable possession at the base of a wheeled scrum and driving into the heart of the Quins defence to establish the position from which a long series of assaults were launched. Another New Zealander, the outside-half David Hill, then made amends for previous failures by banging over a penalty before giving way to Jason Strange, who converted the coup-de-grace try at the last knockings.
Few expect Bristol to make a serious impact on this competition, although they are level on points with the Blues at the top of Pool Three. But after a scratchy start to the season, they have at least generated some momentum in the inclement weather. Quins, dead and buried on the European front, will be better come the spring, but unless they put some results together soon, their chances of another Heineken qualification via the Premiership will be under severe threat by then.
Bristol: Tries Lemi, Blaney, Clarke; Conversion Strange; Penalty Hill. Harlequins: Try Williams; Conversion Jarvis.
Bristol: L Arscott; A Elliott, R Higgitt, N Brew, D Lemi; D Hill (J Strange, 73), S Perry; D Crompton (A Clarke, 64), M Regan (D Blaney, 43, Crompton, 86), J Hobson, R Winters, S Hohneck, M Salter (capt), J El Abd, D Ward-Smith (A Blowers, 52).
Harlequins: T Williams; D Strettle, H Luscombe, J Turner-Hall (T Masson, 70), S Keogh; A Jarvis, D Care (S So'oialo, 63); A Croall (C Jones, 61), T Fuga (G Botha, h-t), R Nebbett, J Percival, N Spanghero (J Evans, 55), C Hala'ufia, W Skinner (capt), P Davies.
Referee: C Berdos (France).Reuse content