They are almost there, not that "almost" is anywhere near good enough for Martin Haag. "While it's still up in the air, we have nothing to celebrate," muttered Bristol's assistant coach this week after putting his elderly pack through their surprisingly sprightly paces at Coombe Dingle, a spacious university sports complex in one of the leafier districts of the city. Yet Haag, a Cornishman armed with a deep-rooted sense of realism frequently mistaken for terminal grumpiness, knows Premiership survival is only a point or two away. Not even that many, if Leeds fail to win at London Irish this afternoon.
His immediate superior, Richard Hill, is a touch more relaxed about life at the business end of a savagely physical top-flight campaign. "We could still go down if Leeds get a maximum return from their last three matches and we mess up completely," he admitted, "but there haven't been many occasions this season when we've failed to pick up a point. I think we've made it, frankly. I think we've deserved it, too."
Bristol threw the proverbial kitchen sink at last weekend's match with Newcastle, knowing victory would virtually guarantee their élite status. Having delivered in spades in front of their increasingly vocal home crowd at the Memorial Ground, the players were in the mood for a quiet drink, followed by a dozen noisy ones. Hill stuck his thumb in that optic straight away, reminding them of the nice little derby against Bath awaiting them six days hence. He can be like that, bless him.
"Yes, I stopped them going out on the town," Hill confirmed. "All but Matt Salter [the Bristol captain] and Mark Regan [the conscience of the team as well as its senior player]. They told me they'd be having a drink irrespective of what I might say to the contrary, on the basis that they were following the example of the management. As I'd already had four pints of cider at the time of the conversation, I didn't have much of a leg to stand on. There was no point arguing."
This has been a wonderful eight months or so for the club - their best for many a moon. Relegated twice during the professional era, their promotion from National Division One last season was a year or so early for the coach's liking. Worcester, the last side to make the step up, had spent half a decade laying the foundations for a sustainable Premiership existence, and while they had duly survived their first season, it had not been without its traumas. "They lost eight from eight at the start," Hill pointed out. "That frightened me a bit, because if the same thing had happened to us I'm not sure how things would have turned out."
Yet Bristol hit the ground sprinting, winning their first two fixtures. Their initial victims were none other than Bath, where Hill had spent his entire active career as a scrum-half of the highest calibre, and those who witnessed the deed were immediately struck by their passionate intensity. In a previous incarnation, Bristol had recruited box-office performers from the four corners of the earth - Frank Bunce, Henry Honiball, Agustin Pichot - yet failed to connect with their own audience. This time, they have replaced star quality with sweat and household names with honesty. The result? Sell-out crowds. As one old hand at Bath put it a few days ago: "We know the Bristol blokes aren't playing for the money, so it must be for the shirt." That means something to a sporting public, especially in the age of Rooney.
Hill has been at the heart of the renaissance, adapting his strategies to the needs of the moment, changing tack whenever circumstances demanded. At the start of the season, he was adamant Bristol would play it their way, operating a high-risk "press" defence while keeping faith with the multi-phased wide game that had earned them promotion. When Gloucester came to the Memorial Ground in mid-September and tanned their hosts' hides to the tune of 40 points, the coach reached for his thinking cap and came up with something different.
"We'd had a perfect start," he recalled. "We were laughing our heads off on the way home from Newcastle, because we were top of the league. Worcester had taken two months to get eight points the year before; we'd done it in two weeks. But by week three, Gloucester had us worked out. We ran around all over the place, they pinned us in the corners and said 'Now what are you going to do?' We couldn't answer that question and they ripped us to shreds. We had to adjust, and we did. When you're playing at this level, you need a balance to your game, an intelligent mix. We've been moving towards it ever since that defeat.
"It's not perfect, of course. We still make mistakes, some of them bloody great big ones, and we were still very naïve as late as the middle of February. We were either losing games we should have won, or doing our best to lose bonus points in defeat. But we got a lot of things right in winning at Saracens some seven weeks ago and since then, our discipline has improved out of all recognition. Referees had been telling us all season to rein ourselves in. They said: 'Look, you're not a malicious team, you're just trying too hard and getting carried away.' We've taken that on board, and we're much more effective for it."
In planning for a new Premiership season that is just about theirs, Hill has already completed the most hateful side of the head coach's job: the compulsory redundancies. Half a dozen players, some of them significant figures in the promotion effort, have been released, and the coach feels rotten about most, if not all, these lay-offs. "On the occasions he has played for the first XV, he has shown genuine talent," he said of the second row Olly Kohn. "A marvellous servant to the club, a player with a first-class attitude," he remarked of the back-rower Chris Morgan. What about Martin Rospide, the front-row recruit from Argentina? "A lovely man," commented Hill, sadly.
Tough? Definitely. Yet Bristol are not the union game's answer to the National Coal Board, by any manner of means. Hill plans to keep 37 of his existing 43-strong squad, strengthening it with a couple of recruits from the Second Division - a perfectly legitimate move, given the outstanding progress made by the likes of Shaun Perry and Dan Ward-Smith since arriving at the club last summer - and four or five high-calibre performers from wherever he can find them.
"It's a brilliant situation to be in," he said, aglow with enthusiasm. "I'll have 37 people who already know what they're doing in terms of our approach to the game. Last summer, we had 17 newcomers, all of whom needed to start from scratch." And what about the old stagers up front: Regan and Dave Hilton, Darren Crompton and Gareth Llewellyn, all of them positively ancient? "They're good for another year," he insisted. "Hilton is 36, yet he looks younger than ever and remains one of the most mobile loose-head props in the country. He's a pain in the arse, of course, but that doesn't take away from the fact that he's a remarkable player."
And so to the Recreation Ground, and Bath. Hill's blood is in the soil there. He won umpteen cup winner's medals during his career on the banks of the Avon, and more league titles than he could recall with the aid of an abacus. It was Bath that drove him towards the England side - towards the captaincy of his country, towards an appearance in the 1991 World Cup final. He must feel sentimental about the place, surely? "Not at all," he replied, serenely. "I love going there, of course. I'll be out for a curry after the game with Stuart Barnes" - his old half-back partner and a one-eyed adherent to the Bath cause, despite the irreproachable objectivity of his journalism - "so we'd better win. If we don't, it'll be a bloody long night. But in all seriousness, so much time has passed since I last had formal link with the club. I'm looking forward to the game, but purely from the Bristol perspective.
"If I'm honest with you, I'm also nervous about it. I know what it's like to be on the wrong end of a real hiding over there, and it's not pleasant. I remember being with Gloucester and going there half-cock. I can't remember how many they put on us, but they brought Eric Peters off the bench for the last 10 minutes and he scored a hat-trick! This time, it's Brian Ashton who's frightening me to death. He keeps saying Bath have a big performance in them and it's coming any second."
Ashton is in the fourth month of his second stint as Bath's strategist-in-chief, and as he may not be there much longer before England summon him to national duty, he would dearly love to produce that out-sized performance this evening. But there are no flies on his opposite number. Indeed, once next year's World Cup is behind us, it will be no great surprise if Hill goes the same way. After turning water into wine at club level this season, he is surely due a few sips from the rich man's goblet at Twickenham.
The life and times of Richard Hill
* THE PLAYER Won 29 caps for England between 1984 and 1991 after a debut in a 30-point thrashing by South Africa in Port Elizabeth. Bowed out after the narrow World Cup final defeat by Australia at Twickenham. Scored a solitary Test try, against Wales in the 1990 Five Nations Championship.
* THE CAPTAIN
Led his country three times, all in the 1987 Five Nations: England lost 17-0 to Ireland at Lansdowne Road, 19-15 to France at Twickenham and 19-12 to Wales at the Arms Park. After this last, notoriously violent encounter, Hill was one of four players dropped as a disciplinary measure and spent two years out of favour as a result.
* THE APPRENTICE
His first job in front-line coaching was with Gloucester, who re-established themselves under his stewardship. Unconvinced of his own aptitude for highly pressured, director of rugby-style work, he accepted lower-profile roles with Ebbw Vale, Harlequins and Newport before resurfacing at then Second Division Bristol in 2003.
* THE COACH
He is now one of the most highly qualified coaches in the English game, having been included in the Rugby Football Union's first "level five" group.Reuse content