Bristol open chequebook in move to keep pace with elite

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The Independent Online

The condition known as "second season syndrome" generally applies to individuals rather than teams, but Bristol are uncomfortably aware that they could easily fall victim in next term's Premiership without some concerted activity in the transfer market. Hence yesterday's raid on the Celtic League, which promptly produced a pair of useful acquisitions in the shapes of Brian O'Riordan, the Leinster scrum-half, and Craig Morgan, the free-scoring winger from Cardiff Blues. These signings are unlikely to be the end of the story, but they are plenty to be going on with.

O'Riordan won Irish caps at under-19 and under-21 levels, but has played second fiddle to Guy Easterby in provincial competition for longer than he cares to remember. He was ripe for a move, and Richard Hill, the Bristol coach and a scrum-half of considerable note during his playing career, believes that he will offer meaningful competition for Shaun Perry, whose prospects of winning a first cap for England in Australia this summer must be very good indeed.

"I've been looking for someone to provide genuine first-class cover for Shaun, as we think he'll be involved with the full England set-up over the next year or so," Hill said. "We need a half-back who can step in and perform at the highest level. Brian meets that criteria. Yet at the same time, we didn't need an individual who would come here demanding a first-team place without earning it. We've spent time with Shaun and developed him. He is our number one.

"Brian is 25 - just the right age for us to be able to work with him on his skills and help him develop his game. He's been over to Bristol a few times and proved very receptive to new ideas. In addition, he's similar to Shaun physically: tall and powerful, capable of attacking the fringes and quick enough to go through a gap. He's also a few years younger, so we're taking a long-term view."

O'Riordan made his Heineken Cup debut against Bristol at Donnybrook four years ago, but as Brian O'Driscoll and company were also strutting their stuff that day, the travelling Memorial Grounders might have been forgiven for not noticing. They will recognise Morgan, however. The 27-year-old Welshman won 10 full international caps between 2002 and 2005 and was a wildcard contender for a place on the Lions' tour of Australia in 2001. His trademark chip-and-chase routine has suckered many a defence, and he will sharpen Bristol's attacking game, which has had all the cutting edge of an elderly blancmange of late.

"Craig will definitely give us some additional try-scoring experience," agreed Hill, who exceeded expectations by keeping his newly promoted club in the élite league while operating in a financial straitjacket. "We scored only 28 tries last season, despite having lots of possession. Craig is a proven finisher with real pace; in fact, he was timed as the quickest wing in the Wales squad not so long go. We have some good young wings in David Lemi, Lee Robinson and Marko Stanojevic and they're all learning. But Craig has that scoring instinct."

Both Hill and Perry have been nominated for Guinness Premiership awards: Hill in the coach of the season category, where he faces challenges from Philippe Saint-Andre of Sale and Brian Smith of London Irish; Perry as player of the season. The scrum-half has competition from the rejuvenated London Irish centre Mike Catt, the Sale captain Jason White, the Wasps winger Tom Voyce and the former All Black outside-half Carlos Spencer, who has just completed a first campaign at Northampton.