Life after Premiership leaves Bristol in limbo

Henley 18 Bristol 13
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The Independent Online

A decade ago, Henley went to Bristol, very much their elders and betters intraditional rugby terms, and lost 46-6. A tough result for Henley's then coach to swallow, but Sir Clive Woodward has not done too badly since.

Nor have his old club, who were promoted under him in that 1993-94 season and have remained in the national leagues. Yesterday they were too good for Bristol, whose relegation from the Premiership brought them to Dry Leas for the first time in a competitive fixture and demonstrated how far the mighty have fallen.

Henley improved their facilities last summer, when they assisted the Rugby Football Union stage the Under-21 World Cup, but their grandstand, though spick and span, seats only 150 (I was allocated No 123). As for the ground meeting the Premiership's entry criteria, forget it.

"The essence for us is to be competitive in this division," explained Nigel Dudding, Henley's head coach, who worked alongside Woodward in the 1990s. "If we had another £100,000 to spend on players we'd be in the top half of the table, but we don't have the necessary funding to reach the Premiership. We'll keep the family atmosphere and enjoy days like these."

The enjoyment was keenly felt by the majority of a season's best crowd of 1,700, who mustered four or five deep along the touchlines, ears muffled from the cold and blissfully (to the old-fashioned among us) unassailed by such Premiership trappings as manic public-address announcers or thumping pop music.

Bristol's sizeable travelling support reflects their history, troubled in recent times though it is. When they relinquished their place among the moneyed élite last May, their plight, ironically, drew a record Premiership crowd of 20,763 to a "home" win over Bath at Ashton Gate.

There are those who would like to pull up the drawbridge altogether, but automatic promotion was subsequently preserved by the casting vote of the RFU's chief executive, Francis Baron. Nevertheless, the heavy investment in infrastructure and players among the Zurich clubs is ring-fencing the top flight almost by default. Bristol have been in this division before, but the gap is widening and though they have a three-year plan to bounce back they may want to get on with it faster than that.

The initial step was a successful takeover by a new board fronted by former players Nigel Pomphrey and Alan Morley (the former owner, Malcolm Pearce, retains a one-eighth interest). On the field, a new team, with ex-England scrum-half Richard Hill in charge, lost three of their first four matches at the start of the National League One campaign and have no chance of challenging the twin pacesetters, Worcester and Orrell, who meet in Lancashire in a fortnight.

Hill says that is fine for now. "The Bristol supporters understand that if you go for immediate promotion you need a budget of between £1m and £1.8m, as Worcester have got. They don't want me to recruit a load of South Africans and New Zealanders just to get up."

Bristol are aiming for mid-table this season, followed by a top-three finish and promotion in years two and three. Hill has signed up until 2005 and is busy persuading the predominantly youthful members of his squad to share the vision spearheaded by older lags such as Martin Haag, Dave Hilton and Brett Davey.

Henley achieved their third win in 13 league matches by shrugging off an early Bristol try by Rob Higgitt and counter-attacking with two tries before the first half was out. A penalty try was the only choice when Rusty Osman was tackled without the ball supporting a left-wing break by Ali James. Then another Henley raid, launched by Nnamdi Obi, led to James scoring on the half-hour.

Henley's five-point lead at the interval was secure at the end after two penalties apiece from the respective fly-halves, Barry Reeves and Danny Gray. "Sometimes we expect too much," said Hill. "The opposition normally raise their game against us, and Henley wanted it more than we did."

Henley: P Davies; N Obi, B O'Driscoll, R Osman, A James; B Reeves, L Smye (A Chilten, 53); S Johnstone, J Hamilton-Smith (A Grierson, 67), A Hopcroft, J Winterbottom, N Martin, J Atkinson, S Barnes (capt), M Venner (T Hayman, 44).

Bristol: B Davey; M Stanojevic, R Higgitt, J Hawker, S Marsden (O Evans, 69); D Gray, P Hodgson (G Nicholls, 39-42, 65); A Clarke, S Nelson, D Hilton (capt; W Thompson, 71), M Haag (O Kohn, 65), O Hodge, M Styles (C Hill, 53), R Martin-Redman, C Morgan.

Referee: N Higginson (Devon).