Extinction looms as proud Bristol fail to move with the times

Rugby Union: With plans for a merger with Bath well advanced, today's match at London Irish could be the last for a club steeped in tradition
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As the crow flies, the Bristol training ground is rather less than half a mile from the Clifton Suspension Bridge, one of Brunel's enduring masterpieces and perhaps the grandest suicide spot in the whole of Britain. To judge by the bleak and desperate tone of the website protests, the pamphlets, the petitions, the radio phone-ins and the television vox pops, the bridge may be rather crowded in the coming days. Bristol, 115-year-old patriarchs of the English game, play London Irish this afternoon in the final fixture of the regular Premiership season. It is perfectly possible they will not play again.

As the crow flies, the Bristol training ground is rather less than half a mile from the Clifton Suspension Bridge, one of Brunel's enduring masterpieces and perhaps the grandest suicide spot in the whole of Britain. To judge by the bleak and desperate tone of the website protests, the pamphlets, the petitions, the radio phone-ins and the television vox pops, the bridge may be rather crowded in the coming days. Bristol, 115-year-old patriarchs of the English game, play London Irish this afternoon in the final fixture of the regular Premiership season. It is perfectly possible they will not play again.

Funny places, rugby communities, even when the fun has disappeared. "Heard the latest one?" asked Russ Yandell, a tough little blighter from the local Old Redcliffians club, as he went about his groundsman's work on Wednesday afternoon. "That J K Rowling woman is buying us up. There's a headline for you: 'Harry Potter Saves Bristol'."

"We'll need more than bloody Harry Potter," muttered Darren Crompton, the injured prop, as he wandered, arm in sling, across the grass to watch the last heavy training session of the week – perhaps the last heavy training session ever.

Suddenly, it all came flooding back: the inspired practical jokery, the savage humour, the gut-busting laughter that made this wonderful old club what it was in the last two decades of the amateur era.

There was Austin Sheppard, the undertaker, who played hundreds of games at prop and once gave a drunken colleague a bed for the night in his chapel of rest. (The player, who shall remain nameless, woke up with a ferocious hangover and started screaming, convinced he had died and gone to hell).

There was the much missed David Tyler, who organised a tour training session in New York's Central Park in blissful ignorance of the fact that the park covered the best part of 900 acres. The session started six hours late.

There was Peter Stiff, a great hulk of a second row forward, who cried like a baby at the thought of air travel. Boarding a small chartered plane bound for Newcastle, he found his name written on every single one of the 200 available sick bags.

Go back further, and past glories are magnified into something all-encompassing. Bristol, a happy amalgamation of the Carlton and Redland Park clubs, confronted Dave Gallaher's original New Zealand All Blacks in 1905; they produced the first black player, James Peters, ever to play

On the international front for England, they spawned Len Corbett and Sam Tucker, two of the pre-war greats, during an initial golden era stretching from 1919 to 1931. They flowered again in the revolutionary "Rugby – Bristol Fashion" years of John Blake, whose striking features tended to darken at the very mention of tactical kicking, and they gave us Dave Rollitt and John Pullin, Alan Morley and Mike Rafter and Richard Harding. This was a real rugby club in a real rugby city, and it really mattered.

And now it is on the very cliff-edge of extinction, led there by the man who drew them back from the self-same precipice five years ago. Malcolm Pearce, a renowned West Country rugby obsessive who bought Bristol when his beloved Bath fell into the hands of a business rival, wants to merge the two, and people close to the boardroom action say the deal has been done. At best, Bristol will cease to stand alone as an independent club. At worst, it will disappear into an impenetrable thicket of business receivership and cease to exist altogether. Pearce, who openly describes professional rugby in Bristol as "unsustainable", believes a merged club will work. He may be right. It is, however, a sorry day for the game he loves.

Sorry not just for those who have lived Bristol's history through thick and thin, every Saturday afternoon since the year dot. (In many ways, Bristol's current problems are rooted in a fixation with the past, a refusal to move with the times based on an unshakeable belief that English rugby owed the club a future.) The sorrow is at its most intense when a brilliant young talent like Rhys Oakley, a 22-year-old embodiment of the city's rugby heritage, turns in a performance of such quality that it reminds the paying customer on the terraces why he fell for the sport in the first place.

Oakley did just that last weekend, when Bristol beat Bath 30-20 in a classic derby encounter in front of a record 21,000 crowd at Ashton Gate. Raised in the little-urchin rough and tumble of mini rugby – he played his early stuff at Thornbury before graduating to the swankier Clifton set-up – the No 8 managed the not inconsiderable feat of running rings round his opponents while tackling himself to a standstill.

The son of Welsh parents, both of them from Cardiff, he was watched by Steve Hansen, the Wales coach, and Mike Ruddock, who has been given charge of the new Gwent regional side. Ruddock wants him to play in Newport next season. Hansen very nearly included him in his tour party for the summer Tests in Australia and New Zealand.

The youngster may be the last to make the journey from school and junior club rugby to senior Bristol citizenship, a journey familiar to so many of the local legends, from Tucker and Bunny Chantrill to Rafter, Mike Fry and Nigel Pomphrey. The thought eats at Oakley. "It's absolutely unnerving to think this might be the end for Bristol," he said, still on a high from Sunday's victory but profoundly aware of the broader picture. "I grew up supporting this club; as a kid, I loved being around the players. It would kill me if it all disappeared.

"I always wanted to be a part of Bristol, and because of that, I always hated Bath. That much was expected of me, coming from where I do. A Bristol-Bath merger? I can't comprehend it. Rugby was always such a massive part of the Bristol in which I grew up. All those clubs – Thornbury and St Mary's, Old Reds and Dings Crusaders, Avonmouth and Bishopston – providing all those opportunities for young players to get involved in competitive rugby, go through the age-group stuff and make the best of themselves. There was always that one goal: to play for Bristol's first team. If we merge, if Bristol falls away, what will be left for the kids who want to do what I've done?"

Bristol are not blameless in all this, neither the club nor the city as a whole. Twenty years ago, when they won the John Player Cup at Twickenham and were top of the domestic pile, they not only failed to broaden their perspective, but did not even try. Instead, they oozed arrogant insularity, secure in the belief that a club that had been rich and powerful for the best part of a century could not fail to remain so in perpetuity. Twelve miles down the road, meanwhile, Jack Rowell, David Robson, Tom Hudson and, yes, Malcolm Pearce were busily creating a new, more ruthless, more acquisitive style of club. They went by the name of Bath, and they swept all before them.

A year later, Stuart Barnes of Bristol missed a last-ditch penalty and relinquished the John Player silverware to Bath. Soon after, Bristol relinquished Barnes to Bath. In the space of a season, the balance of power shifted decisively. Bath won everything on offer for more than a decade, while Bristol won nothing worth winning. They pieced together some top-notch forward packs – Alan Sharp, Mark Regan, Andy Blackmore, Simon Shaw, Paul Collings and Derek Eves were nobody's pushovers – but something vital had gone missing.

At committee level, the club went through a process of ossification. When Rob Cunningham, a confrontational sort but cute enough to see the way the game was going, attempted to streamline the decision-making side of the club, he ran into a brick wall of buttoned-up conservatism and was sacked as coach. Many of the best players had moved on before Arthur Holmes, Pearce's predecessor as investor-in-chief, put the club into administration and flogged the Memorial Ground, its chief asset, to Bristol Rovers for the princely sum of £10,000. Unsurprisingly, the rest of the front-line players jumped ship soon afterwards.

In many ways, Pearce has kept his end of the bargain over the last five years. He bankrolled the club's return to big-time rugby and brought some serious talent to the equation: Rowell, Bob Dwyer, Agustin Pichot, Felipe Contepomi, Henry Honiball, Dean Ryan, Jason Little, Julian White, Daryl Gibson. In many ways, he has not been rewarded for his enthusiastic commitment. But equally, some of his knee-jerk initiatives to re-establish Bristol as a significant force in the English game have had a distinct whiff of the Keystone Kops about them. Saddled with the tenancy of a ground no one likes and with a team too few of the local populace want to watch, Pearce has exhausted all of his good ideas and most of his bad ones.

Which leaves Bristol Football Club (RFU), formed at the city's Montpelier Hotel in April 1888, doing their thing at the Madejski Stadium in Reading this afternoon, 80 minutes away from oblivion. Their owner is said to be on holiday in Spain, and no one knows if he plans to attend. As ever, it will be down to the players, the poor bloody infantry, to carry on regardless. They deserve better and rugby deserves better, but that's professionalism for you.

Would the last man out of the dressing room please switch off the light?

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