Hill’s Bristol future grows ever bleaker

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The Independent Online

Richard Hill, considered by many to be the finest coach in England and a proven master of the difficult art of creating a silk purse from a sow’s ear, is fast approaching the end of his five-year stay at Bristol. The former international scrum-half did not travel to Sale for last night’s Guinness Premiership match.

Paul Hull, his second in command, was given charge of first-team duties at the start of the week – and while Hill is still nominally in position, the prospects of him remaining there beyond the next couple of weeks are diminishing rapidly.

Bristol’s recently restructured management board, led by a new chairman in Chris Booy, have identified Hull as the man to take things forward next season, be it in the Premiership or, far more likely given their isolation at the foot of the table, in National Division One. Hull is highly rated by the Rugby Football Union’s coaching development specialists and has been fast-tracked into a role with the second-string England Saxons set-up, but it is believed he wants Hill to stay in place long enough to facilitate a smooth transition – perfectly understandable in light of the fact that more than 20 players will soon be out of contract.

He may not get his wish. Last week, Hill confirmed that he had been in talks with the French Top 14 club Montauban, and even though news has since emerged of financial problems down there in the Midi-Pyrenees, Hill, a fluent French speaker, has other options across the water. If he has the good fortune to join a club with serious financial muscle, he will deliver trophies.

Bristol have been propping up the table almost from the word go, but as they started the campaign on a shoestring budget of around £3m, at least 25 per cent less than any of their rivals, the situation was entirely predictable. Not even Hill, with his superb track record of turning unknowns from the Second Divison into going concerns at Premiership level, could keep pulling rabbits from his hat. When Newcastle, the other obvious relegation candidates, won by more than 30 points at the Memorial Ground eight days ago, there was an air of futility about the place.

If Bristol are to spare themselves another spell outside the top flight, they will have to find a way of overhauling Worcester, the only side now in view. It has been an uncomfortable couple of weeks in the West Midlands, the sudden departure of head coach Clive Griffiths after disagreements with director of rugby Mike Ruddock being followed by a four-try caning from Bath on home soil. Today they visit Leicester, and as Welford Road is not the most obvious of bolt-holes for teams under pressure, it could be another long afternoon.

Not that Ruddock is thinking negatively. “I really do believe this group can turn things round,” he said yesterday. “The margins are so small. At 17-14 down against Bath, I felt we were capable of winning the game. Unfortunately, we missed a tackle and ended up chasing the game instead. We can’t let tackles slip in midfield against Leicester. If they’re going to beat us, I want us to make sure they have to do it on the outside.”

Gloucester, top of the league despite levels of public criticism that would be better aimed at a side in Bristol’s position, travel to Harlequins, who have not lost a league game at home since London Irish sneaked past them by a point in the mother of all comebacks last September. The West Countrymen will have their work cut out.