Hull's infusion of spirit throws Bristol a lifeline
Bristol 37 Worcester 18
Not so much a wake as an awakening. Bristol could have been railroaded out of the Guinness Premiership yesterday; instead, they scored half a dozen tries – their biggest tally in the elite league for six years – and generally played like men possessed. Relegation is still an overwhelming likelihood, but liberation is a stone-cold fact. Under Paul Hull, their new head coach, they will return to the stylish "Bristol fashion" rugby of half a century ago or die in the attempt.
Hull was some player in his day: a beautifully balanced full-back who, at his best, could stretch the mind almost as far as he stretched opposition defences. It is also true to say that he was used and abused by England, but that is another story. He took over the running of the Memorial Ground show from Richard Hill last month, inheriting a side in the pit of despond following a humiliating 35-3 home defeat by Newcastle, then considered to be the other candidates for the drop. In the days and weeks since, he has made quite an impact.
"We've simplified our game and intensified our training," he explained after watching his side claim their first attacking bonus point of a wretched campaign. Certainly, Bristol scored some simple tries – far too simple from the point of view of Hull's opposite number, Mike Ruddock, who tried his level best to avoid overt criticism of his players but finally caved in, describing their performance as "unacceptable". As for the added intensity, there were sure signs of it from the likes of Mariano Sambucetti and Dan Ward-Smith, neither of whom had enjoyed vintage seasons.
Ward-Smith is off to Wasps next season: not for him the joys of a Saturday afternoon arm-wrestle in Doncaster or Plymouth. But Sambucetti is staying come what may, as are some of the better young forwards on the roster: Mark Irish, Wayne Thompson, Redford Pennycook. Hull has already signed the scrum-half Jason Spice from Cardiff Blues – "He's been around; he knows what's what" – and the eye-catching centre Jack Adams from Gloucester. "If we go down, we intend to bounce straight back up," said the coach.
The uncontrolled bounce of the ball from Worcester's kick-off suggested Bristol were not in the right frame of mind to bring Hull's game plan to full flower, yet by the half-hour mark they were 17 points ahead. Tom Arscott left Matt Jones, Matt Mullan and Willie Walker spreadeagled in scoring the opening try, then fed Junior Fatialofa (a centre sufficiently powerful to leave you wondering what Senior Fatialofa must be like) for the second. When Sambucetti crossed from the traditional second-row forward's distance of zero inches, a bonus before the interval was a distinct possibility.
Instead, it was Worcester who summoned the furies towards the end of the half. Miles Benjamin had a try disallowed for obstruction, but the decision did little to ease the pressure on Bristol's line. Finally, Dale Rasmussen was driven across for a converted score, and after Marcel Garvey sped past Neil Brew a couple of minutes into the second period, Walker's back-of-the-hand flip pass found Kai Hortsmann, whose touchdown brought the visitors to within two points of their hosts.
Here was a real test of Hull's team, who had already lost their England half-back Shaun Perry to blurred vision and could see the dreaded R-word in their collective mind's eye. For five long minutes there was an air of uncertainty about them, but Arscott dropped a goal pretty much out of nowhere to calm the nerves before Lee Robinson dived full length to score in the right corner following a laboured handling move that might have broken down at any moment.
Robinson, big and fast but no one's idea of a rugby genius, completed the scoring in stoppage time – Haydn Thomas scored the intervening try from a smart line-out move involving the ever-dependable Roy Winters – and it was no more than he deserved. He has always roamed off his wing, but yesterday, there was a point to his roaming, a sense of purpose. If Hull can inspire this kind of improvement, there will be better times ahead.
Scorers: Bristol: Tries Robinson 2, T Arscott, Fatialofa, Sambucetti, Thomas; Conversions Barnes 2; Drop-goal T Arscott; Worcester: Tries Rasmussen, Horstmann; Conversion Walker; Penalties Walker 2.
Bristol: T Arscott; L Robinson, N Brew (L Eves, 59), J Fatialofa (L Arscott, 71), D Lemi; E Barnes, S Perry (H Thomas, 19); M Irish (W Thompson, 2-10), S Linklater, D Crompton (Thompson, 76), M Sambucetti (R Winters, 60), R Sidoli, R Pennycook (A To'oala, 69), J El Abd (capt), D Ward-Smith.
Worcester: W Walker; M Garvey, A Grove (H Luscombe, 69), D Rasmussen, M Benjamin; M Jones (L Crichton, 59), R Powell (J Arr, 68); M Mullan (C Black, 64), C Fortey (A Lutui, h-t), D Morris, G Rawlinson, W Bowley (C Gillies, 65), T Wood (M Cox, 75), P Sanderson (capt), K Horstmann.
Referee: W Barnes (London).
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