Hill charts course for safety after bail-out keeps Bristol ship afloat

The Premiership strugglers, thrown a financial lifeline, must now beat the drop. Their coach tells Chris Hewett how
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The Independent Online

There should have been something of the bleak midwinter about Bristol as Richard Hill, the head coach, and Joe El Abd, the captain, sat down to discuss their team's latest slide towards pauperism a few days ago.

The Christmas traffic around the training ground on the north-western edge of the city – someone else's training ground, needless to say, for the Premiership's bottom club own nothing in the way of bricks, mortar or land – was hellish, and the weather was very nearly as miserable as the balance sheet. To cap it all, El Abd was contemplating three months of depressing inactivity, courtesy of a torn muscle in his left arm.

Instead, there was a whiff of optimism about both men, as though they expected some good news at any moment – news that would calm the nerves of employees who had been hearing nothing but dire predictions of another brush with the financial administrators, leading to redundancies among the back-room staff and a mass exodus of players in search of professional contracts elsewhere. Sure enough, the glad tidings duly arrived, delivered by the part-time chief executive Steve Gorvett, a fine No 8 from the good old days of the late 1970s, when Bristol were as powerful as any side in the land and immeasurably stronger than most.

Gorvett did not trumpet it from the rooftops – he never does – but he let it be known, ever so quietly, that significant new investment had been secured, both from existing contributors and fresh ones, and that as a result the club was viable once again. As Hill, who had caught wind of this a few hours previously, felt able to remark: "I think we can now say that provided we don't finish bottom and go down, there will be a Bristol in the Premiership next season. What budget we'll be working on, I haven't a clue. But we'll be there."

No one blessed with a beating rugby heart will begrudge them their change of fortune. Twice in the previous 10 years Bristol had come close to collapse and, in the period of breast-beating that followed, accusations of complacency and rank mismanagement were difficult to gainsay.

Here was a team so short-sighted that players as outstanding as Stuart Barnes, Gareth Chilcott, Jon Webb and Phil de Glanville were allowed to slip away to neighbouring Bath; an organisation so befuddled that, back in the amateur days, they lured the wing Eric Thillet from France and then fixed him up with a job that prevented him playing on Saturdays; a club that found itself in such an unmitigated pickle that it sold its soul, in the shape of the evocative old Memorial Ground, to Bristol Rovers FC for the sporting equivalent of three and six. Yet on this occasion, they could legitimately claim to be innocent victims.

Three things happened to them. The Premiership fraternity, in their infinite wisdom, voted for a 25 per cent increase in the salary cap that left Bristol, determined not to throw good money after bad as they had in the recent past, £1m down on their rivals and unable to recruit effectively. (The decision seemed daft at the time; now, in the ever-lengthening shadow of the recession, it seems spellbindingly stupid). As a result of this financial imbalance, they quickly found themselves at the bottom of the league and suffered a drop-off in business at the turnstiles. Then, just to rub it in, the economy went pop. A triple whammy? You could say.

Yet even before Gorvett's reassuring noises, the coaches and players had pledged to fight their corner to the bitter end. A week ago, they clawed their way to a draw at Worcester – Ed Barnes nailed a penalty with the last kick of the game – and moved to within a point of 11th-placed Newcastle, publicly identified by Hill as the "other" candidates for the drop.

Today, after another week of training, eye-watering in its intensity, they face Gloucester in the kind of West Country derby that rewards guts, resilience and the ability to absorb pain as much as it does twinkle-toed skill. It would be wholly in keeping with the events of the last seven days if Bristol sneaked it.

Hill used to coach Gloucester and is therefore acutely aware of the difference between a cash-rich club and a cash-poor one. "They have a wonderful set-up," he said. "They have a brand new stand that makes Kingsholm as good as any rugby ground in the country, they have modern facilities ... all things considered, they're in a very enviable position. They've gone the way a rugby club should go. But I think this is a good time for us to play them – at home, just after Christmas, when we can expect something like a full house.

"I've never witnessed a better attitude in training in all the time I've been here. The players have been unbelievable. When we spoke together about our financial situation earlier this month, they all said how determined they were to see it through, come what may. Jason Hobson [the tight-head prop who toured New Zealand with England last summer] phoned me after the meeting to pledge his 100 per cent support. And Robert Sidoli [the Welsh international lock] stood up and told us: 'I was there with the Celtic Warriors when the management walked in one day and said, "Bang, it's all gone". At least the people here have been honest enough to tell us what's happening. You can't ask for more than that.'"

El Abd, a profoundly committed individual who may just be the most courageous open-side flanker in the Premiership, struck a similar note to Sidoli's. "There has been so much speculation – negative speculation, most of it – and if the players had simply read the stuff in the papers without being kept informed by management, it might have been difficult," the captain said.

"But the people in the know have been completely transparent in their dealings with us and we appreciate it. I was here the last time things were tough, and on that occasion the players were finding out a lot of information through the press. It's in those circumstances that the bad feeling creeps in. This time, things are different.

"Everyone who plays here genuinely loves the club, I'm convinced of that, and come next season, I'd expect at least 90 per cent of the squad to stay. It's a joy to be captain here because the spirit is unmatchable. Even though I'm injured and out for some time, I'll keep giving it my all. When I took on the job, I knew most of the leadership duties would be off the pitch rather than on it. Looking on the bright side, this gives me the chance to perform those duties really well."

Hill, one of the great make-do-and-mend coaches, has identified a number of winnable fixtures at which he will throw the kitchen sink – along with the cooker, the dishwasher and the fridge-freezer.

It does not require the services of a rugby Einstein to work out the who, where and when: if Bristol are to stay up, they will need three or four victories and a similar number of losing bonus points before the end of March.

Newcastle and Worcester, both of whom must visit the Memorial Ground, are at the top of Hill's list, followed by the likes of Harlequins and Wasps, who are certain to be weakened by Six Nations call-ups.

"We're doing quite a lot of things right," the coach insisted. "I haven't seen the statistics since last weekend, but before that round of matches we'd made fewer tackles than any other team in the league, which tells you something about how much time we've been spending in possession. When Gloucester beat us 39-10 up there, they made twice as many tackles as us. Also, we were second only to Bath in the number of passes we'd completed. Winning and keeping the ball is not a problem for us, clearly. The problem is one of penetration.

"I've been putting the clock on this stuff, and the results are pretty astonishing. Harlequins put five tries past us at the Stoop in September, and the total time they spent in possession to score those tries was 42 seconds. We spent 48 seconds scoring one try!

"The lesson is clear: we haven't been dynamic enough in creating and finishing opportunities, and at the same time, we've been shooting ourselves in the foot by making silly mistakes and conceding soft points. It's not easy to put these things right, but at least we know where the problems are arising."

Now that the rather larger problem of acute Old Mother Hubbarditis is being addressed by the men in business suits, the bloke in the tracksuit can get to work on a Monday morning with renewed enthusiasm, secure in the knowledge that when he returns on a Tuesday morning, the club will still be there.

Hill has not persuaded himself that Bristol will definitely get out of this predicament with their Premiership status intact: he is too much of a realist for that. He is beginning to believe they might, though. And that is a mighty big advance on the situation this time last week.