Bristol, one of England’s great rugby clubs, have spent much of the professional era in a financial pickle, but now they have some serious money behind them – their principal investor, the billionaire tax exile Stephen Lansdown, makes most Premiership chairmen look like Big Issue salesmen – they are beginning to make their presence felt again. On Monday they announced the signing of Ryan Jones, the former Wales captain and Lions Test forward, who may arrive at the Memorial Ground in time to play a part in their promotion push.
The Championship team had been linked with Jones for some weeks and when they finally persuaded him to apply his thumbprint to a two-year contract, they were understandably delighted – not least because the 33-year-old Ospreys player will join a number of other eye-catching recruits, including a fellow Lion in the scrum-half Dwayne Peel, another gifted Welshman in the shape of the highly rated stand-off Matthew Morgan, and three current Samoan internationals: the wing David Lemi, the prop Anthony Perenise and the flanker Jack Lam. If they find a way to hang onto the excellent Scottish loose forward Ross Rennie, currently on loan from Edinburgh, they will have plenty of know-how at their disposal next season.
Even though they sit top of the Championship table going into the last four matches of the regular season and are certain to make the promotion play-offs, they are by no means guaranteed an early return to the top flight. London Welsh, relegated from the Premiership last season and desperate (for financial reasons as well as competitive ones) to bounce straight back up, pose a genuine threat and recently made eight signings in time for the knock-out stage, scheduled to begin in early May.
Jones will link up with Bristol as soon as Ospreys complete this season’s business in the Pro 12. As the Welsh region are at risk of missing out on that tournament’s play-off phase, he could be available to play for his new club in the second leg of their semi-final, likely to be against Leeds or Rotherham. “It’s the toughest decision I’ve had to make but with only a year remaining on my Ospreys contract, this move offers me longer-term security,” said the Welshman, who has given a full decade of service to the Ospreys and was the pick of the Lions in their ill-starred series against the All Blacks in 2005.
“There were a number of options available but I want to test myself at the highest level of the game in England and I want to do it with Bristol, whose vision and direction, together with the passion of the supporters, is a huge attraction for me.”
There were recruitment developments yesterday elsewhere in the West Country too. Gloucester announced the signing of 29-year-old Scarlets outside-half Aled Thomas, who will renew acquaintances with Nigel Davies, the rugby director at Kingsholm. “I’ve known Aled for a long time and he’s a very talented player,” said Davies, who coached Thomas at Scarlets before moving across the Severn in 2012. “He will give us an additional option at half-back and can be relied on to deliver.”
Together with the Scotland international Greig Laidlaw, who can play in both half-back positions, Thomas will fill the hole left by the departing Freddie Burns.