There are those who give Andy Robinson a 50-50 chance of travelling to France for next year's World Cup as the head coach of England, and there are those, many of them in London rugby circles, who do not give him a cat's chance in hell. What do they know? Three victories out of four in the forthcoming autumn international series - a perfectly realistic target in light of the financial poverty of the Argentine game and the tactical poverty of the South Africans - would cement the West Countryman in the job of his dreams, even though he went from 100 per cent head honcho to 20 per cent of an unwieldy five-man selection committee the moment Rob Andrew donned the ermine as lord high chamberlain of Twickenham.
Assuming England do not implode in November, the real question is this: who will succeed Robinson when his contract reaches full term at the conclusion of the global business scheduled to begin in 12 months' time? We can identify one candidate, for sure. Step forward Richard Hill, who played with Robinson in the great Bath side of the late 1980s and early '90s. Hill coaches Bristol these days - something the latter, a one-eyed Recreation Grounder if ever there was one, may or may not be prepared to forgive at some indeterminate point in the future - and is making one heck of a job of it.
Bristol's victory at the Madejski Stadium, the ground on which they succumbed to relegation as recently as the spring of 2003, said plenty about the growing sense of unity among the players and even more about the technical expertise and inspirational abilities of the man running the show. Hill insisted afterwards that his half-time address to a team fortunate to be only 11-3 adrift was nothing to write home about - rather, it was a calm and constructive assessment of what was wrong and why.
The visitors won the second half 20-0, with tries down either wing from David Lemi - the "little rat", as Hill politely described him - and Lee Robinson, who is not a "little" anything. Bristol barely put a collective toenail out of place for the duration of the period, during which the London Irish players disappeared up their own rear ends in a fog of confusion. This from a team armed with a pack routinely dismissed as too old and a back division popularly condemned as anonymity made flesh. We are not talking miracles here. We are talking something much more impressive.
"We'd die for this team," pronounced Matt Salter, the captain, apparently unaware that his more ancient fellow forwards were widely assumed to have expired during the close season. Roy Winters, by some distance the youngest of the first-choice tight forwards at 30, was equally chirpy. Asked how long it now took him to drag himself out of bed on a Sunday morning, he replied: "Until Monday morning." And then there was Mark Regan. On reading The Independent's report of Bristol's draw with Saracens last weekend, the Lions hooker spotted what he considered to be a spelling mistake. "When you described us a venerable, you must have meant valuable," he said. Touché.
High spirits indeed - the feel-good responses of players comfortable in the skin of their team, unashamed of their limitations and happy to operate within strict parameters. Some of this comes from Salter's leadership, which is of the first-over-the-top variety, but the majority of it comes from Hill and his second-in-command, Martin Haag. They have earned the respect and confidence of their charges, from the greybearded Dave Hilton to the fresh-faced Rob Higgitt (although Higgitt is likely to see his complexion change, having suffered a nose injury sufficiently serious to require plastic surgery). As a result, Bristol are far greater than the sum of their parts.
It will not always be like this, of course. A couple of arthritic setbacks up front would cause no end of hassle, although the inexperienced Alex Clarke performed particularly well after Hilton's departure to the sin-bin, and if Bristol defend against Wasps next weekend as they did in the first half on Saturday, they will be minced alive. Hill is not holding his breath for a play-off appearance, or even a Heineken Cup qualification place. "The board have demanded that we finish between fifth and eighth," he said. "I've told them we're looking at eighth."
But for the time being, Bristol are shipshape. Hill's strategy to maximise performances in September by press-ganging his players into pre-season training in early June, three weeks before anyone else, is looking more shrewd by the minute; two very good New Zealanders arrive at the Memorial Ground in five weeks or so, with another due in January; and the fixture list has been sympathetic in throwing up Sale, Bath and Gloucester during November, when Test calls will be at their most debilitating.
Brian Smith, the London Irish coach, may not have been wildly impressed by Bristol's canine approach to a second half that might have been played in a kennel, but he decided against rehearsing his trademark line about the eternal conflict between "good rugby" and "evil rugby".
Deprived of the rough-and-ready services of the injured Bob Casey in their second row, the Exiles could not match their opponents in the dogfight - a fact that was unlikely to be lost on his opposite number, whose bite was every bit as bad as his bark during his more tempestuous spells as a player. Hill may be better groomed these days, but he knows how to get a team to bare its teeth.
London Irish: Try Roche; Penalties Flutey 2. Bristol: Tries Lemi, Robinson; Conversions Strange 2; Penalties Strange 3.
London Irish: D Armitage (S Geraghty, 47-54); T Ojo, D Fea'unati (B Everitt, 60), M Catt (capt), J Bishop; R Flutey, P Hodgson; T Lae'aetoa (N Hatley, 40), D Coetzee (Magne, 69), R Skuse (D Fitter, 63), N Kennedy, J Hudson, K Roche, O Magne (R Russell, 52), J-M Leguizamon (P Murphy, 64).
Bristol: J Taumalolo; L Robinson, R Higgitt (D Lemi, 40), S Cox, C Morgan; J Strange, S Perry; D Hilton (A To'oala, 47), M Regan, D Crompton, R Winters, G Llewellyn (N Budgett, 64), M Salter (capt), J El Abd (To'oala, 29; A Clarke 40), D Ward-Smith.
Referee: R Debney (Leicestershire).Reuse content