Maybank's mishap costs Bristol dear

London Irish 24 <Br/> Bristol 22
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The Independent Online

Just like the football Premiership, rugby's domestic showcase serves up the occasional plateful of indigestible slop. This particular helping was Bunteresque in its proportions.

"We were awful in the first half," admitted Richard Hill, the Bristol coach. "Did I offer some choice words at the break? Of course I did. Someone had to."

And Brian Smith, his opposite number? "Ours wasn't a flash performance by any stretch of the imagination," he confessed. "When you have two teams playing a rush defence, it's pretty frustrating for the spectators because nothing much happens."

Unlike the round-ball version, the poverty of which has unleashed a pandemic of paranoia amongst the radio phone-in fraternity, rugby's élite league can be wildly entertaining irrespective of the standard. Saturday's match at the Madejski Stadium went right down to the wire - Bristol might easily have pinched it during the fraught and frantic last knockings - and there was even the sight of dear old Roy Maybank, one of the less authoritative referees on the circuit, getting in the way of a visiting pack on the rampage and being dumped on his derrière in the most spectacular fashion. Aaaah, bliss. The game should have been held in a Big Top.

Strange to relate, Maybank also found himself on the wrong end of Olivier Magne's elbow, and took such a dim view of this second assault on his dignity that he pointed the stylish French flanker in the direction of the sin bin. There were those at the ground - namely 7,000 supporters, 30 players and two directors of rugby, plus anyone else in the vicinity with a full set of irises and retinas - who would have red-carded Magne on the basis that he did not connect with sufficient force, but that is a story for another day.

Suffice to say that this would not have been one for the connoisseur, even had the combatants been in sufficiently good shape to show the best of themselves and allow their more creative spirits - Delon Armitage and Mike Catt, Bernardo Stortoni and Geraint Lewis - the kind of free expression they crave. Why? Because the exasperating Maybank washed his hands of the offside law and permitted anarchy to reign. The second of Paul Hodgson's first-half tries, scored at an important moment shortly before the break, was the inevitable consequence of this experiment in blind-eye officiating, coming as it did directly from a colleague's illicit intervention while loitering with intent on the Bristol side of a ruck.

For the second time in six days, Bristol found themselves on the wrong end of a sickening seven-point injustice as the interval refreshments were being wheeled out. They did not, however, disappear in a cloud of structureless naïveté as they had against Gloucester the previous weekend. They redoubled their efforts in the scrummage, stayed with it at the line-out and, with their captain Matt Salter in the most cussed of moods, plugged away to such effect that their 21-9 deficit was down to 24-22 with nine minutes left on the clock. Indeed, Brian Lima's individual finish under the posts very nearly gave them the momentum they needed to complete the job.

The fact that they came up just short - quite literally, in light of Jason Strange's marginally underclubbed penalty from well over 50 metres as the game moved into stoppage time - may yet turn out to be costly, for it is an unwritten rule of Premiership rugby that whenever a newly promoted side comes within a single kick of winning on the road, they should ensure they close the deal if they are serious about staying up. On the other hand, Bristol's resilience reinforced the suspicion that they are nobody's patsies.

Their next home league fixtures are against Saracens and Leeds, and Hill will want a bare minimum of five points from them. He would prefer eight. To that end, he intends to rest his elderly tight forwards - Dave Hilton, Darren Crompton and Gareth Llewellyn - and, in all likelihood, the battered Salter for this coming weekend's opening round of the freshly-minted Powergen Cup, which involves the 12 Premership sides together with the four Welsh regions.

He is unlikely to be alone in standing down front-line personnel, and if the BBC did not bargain for this sort of thing when they bought the broadcasting rights, they failed to do their homework.

On the face of it, homework was not Bristol's strong point at the Madejski - after all, their dismantler-in-chief used to play for them. Yet there could have been no planning for Hodgson's second try, such was the degree of illegality in the build-up, and it would have taken some defensive genius to prevent him scoring his first after some excellent approach work from Justin Bishop and Phil Murphy, the ball-carrying No 8 from Canada.

Murphy remains one of life's mysteries. At times, he is Dean Richards incarnate - socks at ankle height, his great paws enveloping a ball that seems to follow him around the field. At others, he is too quiet by half and barely visible, despite his considerable frame. When Magne was sent to the cooler, the Irish coaches immediately sent on Paul Gustard in Murphy's stead, preferring the certainty of the former Leicester player's high work rate to the possibility of something out of the ordinary from their resident North American.

He is different, though, and it would be depressing to see him sacrificed on the altar of safety-first rugby. That kind of thing has given top-flight football a bad name. Rugby should guard against it.

London Irish: Tries Hodgson 2; Conversion Everitt; Penalties Everitt 3; Drop goal Everitt. Bristol: Try Lima; Conversion Strange; Penalties Strange 5.

London Irish: D Armitage; S Staniforth (J Storey, 13), R Penney, M Catt (capt; P Franze, 63), J Bishop; B Everitt, P Hodgson (B Willis, 72); N Hatley (Hardwick, 76), A Flavin (D Paice, 72), R Hardwick (M Collins, 63), R Casey, K Roche (R Strudwick, 72), O Magne, K Dawson, P Murphy (P Gustard, 50).

Bristol: B Stortoni; L Robinson (R Higgitt, 49), B Lima, M Contepomi, V Going (D Gray, 80); J Strange, J Rauluni; D Hilton, S Nelson, D Crompton, M Sambucetti, G Llewellyn, M Salter (capt), C Short (D Ward-Smith, 40), G Lewis.

Referee: R Maybank (Kent).