There is no such thing as a good time to be relegated from the elite division of English rugby. There are only bad times and the times Bristol choose, which are truly terrible.
As the West Countrymen knew all there was to know about disappearing through trapdoors before the start of last season – they finished bottom of the Premiership in 1998, and in 2003 – they should have spotted the danger a mile off. Instead, they walked straight into it, finishing the campaign 17 points adrift of the next worst team and descending into a nasty second-division rat pit rebranded as the Championship.
"It's certainly different, this season's format," admits the former England full-back Paul Hull, who took over as head coach in what might be described as "interesting" circumstances in February. Had he opted for a slightly stronger description, perhaps including the word "nightmare", who could have blamed him? Bristol might win all 22 of their league fixtures and still not go close to regaining their Premiership status, thanks to the introduction of an eight-team, three-round play-off designed to keep as many clubs in the promotion hunt for as long as humanly possible.
Add to this the fact that the Championship is more exclusive, and more heavily professionalised, than any of the previous second-tier incarnations, and it is reasonable to argue that Bristol's sense of timing mirrors that of Robert Willumstad, who became chief executive of the American insurance giant AIG just as it found itself in need of an $85bn loan from the United States government. Poor old Robert didn't last long.
If Bristol have had their money problems down the years, they are in better shape these days. Hull's problem is very different to those of his predecessors. "There's a real edge to this competition and it will be a hard one to win, so I don't want to get too far ahead of myself," he says. "But where teams in the past have won the league with a few weeks to spare and been able to start recruiting early for life in the Premiership, there is no way we can know for sure whether we're going up until the middle of May. That presents a challenge in terms of putting together a squad to keep us up. If we go up, that is."
They have made a handy start – four victories from four games, including last week's one-point win at table-topping Bedford – without suggesting for a moment that this will be a breeze. "I never thought it would be anything of the sort," Hull remarks. "This is the most competitive second division the English game has seen and we'll have to play better than we have over the last month to stay on top of things. There again, we have the potential to improve. We've always been strong on team spirit here, but I don't think the 'good old Bris' attitude is enough any more. I want to change the culture by ensuring the work ethic matches the sense of togetherness. If that happens, we could go places."
Hull played a good deal of top-flight rugby for Bristol in the days when they had a pack, a scrum-half and precious little else. His beautifully liquid running style earned him a handful of international caps and he decided on a coaching career while he was still a first-choice player at the Memorial Ground. Six years ago, when he was offered the top job for the first time, he decided he was not nearly ready for such responsibility and made way for the more experienced Richard Hill. Having returned to assist Hill following a stint at London Irish, he found himself assuming control more or less at the point when he knew the club were doomed to a third dose of relegation.
"I don't know to what extent this is in the public domain, but it was always the plan for me to take over from Richard this season," he says. "I'd been going to the board meetings with him to get a feel of how that side of things worked and been slowly thinking my way into the job. Of course, when Richard went, he went very suddenly, in the space of a couple of weeks. That aspect of it took me completely by surprise, but I'd been preparing for a while."
In an ideal world, he would have kept the lion's share of his squad together, just as more lavishly financed clubs like Harlequins and Northampton were able to do when they took the fall, in 2005 and 2007 respectively. Nothing at Bristol has been ideal since they won the John Player Cup a quarter of a century ago. While there was no sense of meltdown, as there had been in previous relegation seasons, Hull still lost almost an entire side. Wasps took David Lemi, Jason Hobson and Dan Ward-Smith; Gloucester signed the promising young lock Dave Attwood; Alfie To'oala went to Leeds; Shaun Perry and Joe El Abd crossed the Channel; Robert Sidoli returned to Wales; the likes of Mark Regan and Matt Salter decided their bodies would not survive another nine-month pummelling and packed it in.
"I can't really blame them," the coach admits. "They're professionals and had their futures to protect. There was a time around last Christmas when things were really tight financially and the board made it clear that we couldn't talk to anyone about contract renewals, let alone think about recruiting, until March.
"But we managed to hang on to some of the really talented youngsters, and when I look at the Harlequins experience, I'm encouraged. Their young players really bonded during the season they spent outside the Premiership and that spirit has stayed with them, to the extent that a number of them have gone on to win full international honours."
Tomorrow, Bristol face Exeter, unbeaten and highly ambitious, at the Memorial Ground. A week later, they head to Cornish Pirates, another of the teams who have yet to taste defeat this term. Two victories will establish them as clear favourites for top spot come the end of the regular season in mid-February and, no doubt, provoke another outbreak of wailing and gnashing of teeth from those who believe that the system of "parachute payments" gives teams relegated from the Premiership an unbreakable advantage.
This season, however, it is nowhere near so straightforward. As Hull says, Leeds won the Second Division title at a relative canter last season, yet lost to eighth-placed Moseley in the EDF Trophy final at Twickenham a few weeks later. "We could finish top, Moseley could finish eighth again and we could meet in the play-off," he points out. "The difference this time is that if we lose in a one-off match, someone else will be promoted.
"It's a little strange, this idea that a team might lose quite a number of league games yet still have a route into the Premiership if things go right for them after February. All the planning that goes into finishing top of the table could easily come to nothing. But we know where we are in terms of the format and understand what we're up against."
How mighty clubs fell: Sleeping giants
Relegated 1998, 2003, 2008
Once the most powerful of the three great West Country clubs – Bath and Gloucester being the others – Bristol stand on the brink of insignificance. Failure to make an immediate return to the Premiership will raise doubts over their ability to return at all.
A drop goal away from being English champions in 1992, Orrell were hit hard by the new realities of professionalism and lost pretty much everything bar the shirts on their backs. They now play eighth-tier rugby in South Lancs-Cheshire Division Two.
The biggest of the Birmingham clubs reached three cup finals in the late 1970s and early '80s but ran into financial difficulties and ended up selling their ground. They have not challenged seriously for a return to the top flight.
Twice the English knockout champions in the mid-1970s, the club that gave Peter Jackson and David Duckham to the world have been slumming it in the Second Division for two decades. Their best finish in the five years? Sixth.Reuse content