Christophers makes Bristol buzz

Bristol 33 Newcastle 17
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The Independent Online

Bristol have always had game-breaking talent at their disposal – Jon Webb and Paul Hull, two England full-backs, were nobody's mugs when it came to tearing defences to ribbons – but they have not always worked out ways of presenting their main men with the ball. In rattling up a record home victory over Newcastle and establishing a foothold in the top half of the Premiership, the West Countrymen suggested that the penny may finally have dropped.

Phil Christophers, a versatile 21-year-old outside back who joined Bristol from the French club Brive last summer, is the latest attacking whizz-kid to don the blue and white, and more quality possession went his way yesterday than he could have shaken a stick at. He made good use of it too, contributing a very tidy finish in the left corner and generally giving the visiting brat-pack – Dave Richardson, Jamie Noon and Michael Stephenson – the run-around. Boring Bristol? Not on this evidence.

Before the game, Dean Ryan's team were third from bottom and apparently sinking fast. They had lost four Premiership games on the bounce, not to mention a Powergen Cup tie to Gloucester and European Shield matches at Neath and Sale; indeed, they had won only once, a Shield pool match against Bourgoin, in three months.

They had reverted to troglodyte type, scrummaging and mauling the living daylights out of their opponents while scoring once in a blue moon. Relegation did not look particularly likely, but few were prepared to rule it out entirely.

During the first half yesterday, their confidence level was still somewhere in the vicinity of the earth's core. Playing downwind, they sought contact so often that any competent doctor would have diagnosed agoraphobia; Shane Drahm, their Australian outside-half, hit the spot with two long-range penalties, but only one side knew their way to the goal-line, and it wasn't Bristol. When Va'aiga Tuigamala claimed the only try of the opening half-hour following strong runs from his fellow oldies, Richard Arnold and Doddie Weir, the same old story looked ready for a new chapter.

But Ryan's insistence that Bristol are a modern, multi-dimensional outfit rather than a one-act pony was vindicated the moment Noon, the Newcastle centre, disappeared to the cooler following a deliberate knock-on. Within three minutes, the Bristol tight-head Julian White was in at the left corner – his try gave the home side a four-point advantage at the interval – and when Brendon Daniel's burst down the right was maximised by the energetic Adam Vander five minutes into the second half, the home side were up and running at 21-10.

Three minutes later, Christophers extended the gap to 16 points by latching on to Drahm's long pass going left – a high-risk move in the blustery conditions, but cleverly thought through and perfectly executed. Jamie Williams then claimed a fourth try, and Bristol's third attacking bonus point of the season, when Jason Little imitated Drahm and floated a pass on the breeze. "This Premiership is highly competitive, and you can find yourself in real trouble away from home if you allow your opponents to open up any sort of gap," admitted Rob Andrew, the visiting director of rugby.

With five Heineken Cup places up for grabs, Bristol are in with a shout. Their run-in is not terribly daunting, with Leeds, Harlequins and Saracens still on the fixture list, and the Six Nations will not cause Ryan too much grief in terms of international call-ups. Sometimes, a quiet spell in the backwater can take you further than a spell in the mainstream.

Bristol – Tries White, Vander, Christophers, Williams; Conversions Drahm 2; Penalties Drahm 3. Newcastle – Tries Tuigamala, Stephenson; Conversions Wilkinson 2; Drop goal Wilkinson.

Bristol: J Williams; B Daniel, A Higgins, J Little (capt), P Christophers; S Drahm, R Blake; P Johnstone (D Crompton, 75), N McCarthy (S Nelson, 74), J White, G Archer, A Sheridan (M Lipman, 77), A Brown, A Vander, M Salter (B Sturnham, 45).

Newcastle: D Richardson; L Botham, J Noon, V Tuigamala (G Maclure, 74), M Stephenson; J Wilkinson, H Charlton (G Armstrong, 52); M Ward, M Thompson (S Brotherstone, 68), M Hurter (G Graham 59), H Vyvyan, G Weir (S Grimes, h-t), E Taione, R Arnold (J Dunbar, 41), P Lam (capt, A Mower 68).

Referee: S Lander (Liverpool).

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