This was not quite the script as written by Bristol. Blown off course by the freakish weather conditions as much as the tigerish tenacity of Rotherham Titans, they will take with them to Yorkshire next Saturday a mere three-point lead for the second leg of their Greene King IPA Championship semi-final.
Best side in the Championship they may have been, as 13 successive victories testify, but play-offs demand a different mentality and Bristol’s hopes of promotion to the Aviva Premiership remain far from certain. They were relegated five years ago, succumbed tamely to Exeter Chiefs in the 2010 play-off final but now have everything in place to return to England’s elite in place of Worcester Warriors.
No wonder their chairman, Chris Booy, dislikes the play-off system. “They make a lottery of the situation,” Booy said. “We are the best team but it can always go wrong in the play-offs.” For all that, Booy considers that Bristol now occupy their best all-round position since the game went professional 19 years ago.
Well funded since the arrival of Steve Lansdown, founder of his own financial services company, well coached and moving next season to Ashton Gate, Bristol City’s ground on the far side of the city where Lansdown owns both the football and the rugby clubs as part of his holding company, Bristol Sport, the club is ripe for promotion.
The first of the experienced newcomers has already arrived. Signings for next season include internationals in Dwayne Peel, David Lemi and Anthony Perenise plus the Hurricanes flanker, Jack Lam, while Ryan Jones, the Wales and Lions back-five forward, took part in his first training session on Tuesday and could be included for next Saturday’s game at Sheffield’s Abbeydale Stadium
But Lansdown’s ambitions are broader than just running an Aviva Premiership club. His sporting portfolio also includes women’s football, basketball and motor racing, and his hope is that nurturing a variety of professional sports will encourage youngsters to play sport themselves.
Should Bristol reach the play-off final (Leeds Carnegie and London Welsh meet in the other semi-final first leg today), they will play one more game at the Memorial Stadium, their traditional home but now no more than the haunt of Bristol Rovers, relegated to the Skrill Conference. Rotherham, though, have given themselves a fighting chance of upsetting the West Country applecart.
In a game blighted by swirling wind, Juan Pablo Socino, their fly half, kicked three penalties down the breeze, two from more than fifty metres, to give his side a 9-0 interval lead. Rotherham’s defence blunted Bristol’s frenetic opening and, for all the dominance of the home side at the set piece, their inability to adapt to the conditions looked likely to be their downfall.
“We have given ourselves a chance and it backs up the belief in ourselves that we had going into the game,” Lee Blackett, Rotherham’s coach, said. His side lost, in effect, during the two periods when yellow cards reduced them to 14 men: Josh Thomas-Brown was sent to the sin bin for punching Jack Tovey, and Ed Williamson was absent when Bristol scored their third clinching try.
The first went to Gaston Cortes, driven over from a maul. Luke Eves, son of that long-time Bristol favourite, Derek, added a second after a delightful break from Auguy Slowik, and Mitch Eadie registered the third after a series of five-metre scrums. But time remained for Jamie Broadley to chase a chip through by Jordan Davies and score the try that gives Rotherham reason to hope.
Bristol: A Slowik (A Hughes, 66); G Watkins, J Tovey, L Eves, A Short; N Robinson, R Tipuna (L Baldwin, 76); K Traynor, R Lawrence (R Johnston, 60), G Cortes (J Hall, 60), B Glynn, M Sorenson (captain), N Koster, R Rennie, M Mama (M Eadie, 62).
Rotherham Titans: S Scanlon; J Broadley, J Gill (J Davies, 53), J Roberts, M Keating; J-P Socino, C Mulchrone (captain; D White, 77); R Hislop (T Williams, 66), T Cruise, C Quigley (M Tampin, 66), T Holmes, J Thomas-Brown (sin bin 49-59), A Rieder, J Preece, A To’oala (E Williamson, 50; sin bin 69-79).
Referee: T Wigglesworth (Yorkshire).