Things have reached a pretty pass when, a mere two matches into the 22-round Guinness Premiership campaign, teams start pinning hopes of survival on fixtures in November, February and March, during which opponents might be seriously weakened by Test calls. Richard Hill, the Bristol head coach, prefers to describe his approach as realistic rather than negative, but his view is clear: if the West Countrymen are to make it through the season in one piece, they will have to maximise their points return during the two international windows.
Bristol go into tomorrow night's meeting with Sale at the Memorial Ground from an uncomfortable if not entirely unfamiliar position at the foot of the table, having shipped 64 points and eight tries in 160 minutes of rugby to date. "I'd feel really worried if we'd played well at Harlequins last weekend and still gone down five tries to one," Hill said yesterday. "We played really poorly and as a result we've been pretty harsh with each other this week, going back to some old-school training and sorting stuff out. We've been too nice, basically, and we have to get angry. I'll make some changes for this game – a couple up front, a couple behind – and hope we produce a strong performance in front of our home crowd.
"But it's true that our big opportunity to make some progress will be around international time, when some clubs will lose a good number of players to England and elsewhere. My thinking shouldn't be like that, I suppose, but it is. Everyone knows we haven't been able to recruit in the way others have, but we've more depth to our squad now and I'm confident we can take advantage when things move in our favour."
During the autumn international series, Bristol travel to Kingsholm for a Friday-night derby with Gloucester, who will certainly be disrupted by call-ups. During the Six Nations, they face Newcastle, Sale, Harlequins, Bath, Leicester and Wasps, all of whom can expect to yield front-line players to Test teams. Hill, meanwhile, has only one player – the tight-head prop Jason Hobson – among the 64 named by Martin Johnson, the new red rose manager, in July. Under the circumstances, it is not difficult to understand the way his mind is working.
Not that the coach is giving up on his team's more immediate fixtures. "I've reminded everyone this week that if we're not in exactly the right frame of mind for a game, we won't win," he said. "Some sides can get away with things on occasion, but we're not one of them. On the other hand, if we do play with full intensity, our opponents will struggle to take anything from us, especially at the Memorial Ground."
Sale, meanwhile, have already sold out their forthcoming Heineken Cup match with Munster. The reigning champions visit Edgeley Park in the second round of pool matches on 19 October.Reuse content