New Bristol built on old lines

Powergen Cup: After relegation and a return to traditional values, Hill can see good times ahead
Click to follow
The Independent Online

In the middle of one of the biggest weeks of his season Richard Hill is taking refreshment at a cafe in Plymouth. Wasps can wait. Hill is working as a chauffeur for his 17-year-old son Josh who has a series of interviews at Plymouth University. In National League One there is time to smell the coffee.

Today a Bristol team fashioned and coached by Hill meet Wasps at the Memorial Stadium in the sixth round of the Powergen Cup. There hasn't been such a buzz about the place since... Wasps visited this time last year in the sixth round of the Powergen Cup. The Premiership club won 46-8. Last season Bristol, primarily working with the successful under-21 side, were concentrating on consolidating a place in the league. The cup exit to Wasps meant they were re-routed to the Powergen Shield and they ended up winning the consolation trophy at Twickenham. There could be the beginning of a similar scenario today.

The fact that Wasps are coming off two defeats to Leicester in the Heineken Cup doesn't mean a thing to Hill. "We could analyse videos for 12 hours a day, although what good it would do I don't know. Wasps are the European champions and we've got to be realistic. I'm just hoping the team expresses itself and enjoys the experience. I was quoted on Ceefax as saying we intended to catch Wasps at a low ebb. Absolute rubbish. We have very little chance."

But they do have a chance of a far more substantial prize. Bristol are proving there is life after relegation. Either that or you can't keep a good club down. The season before last they dropped out of the Premiership, rivals Bath surviving on points difference when the state of panic in the west country was such that there was talk of a merger. A parachute payment from the Rugby Football Union helped cushion the blow but Bristol had to start again from scratch.

Malcolm Pearce, then a pivotal figure, is now a more circumspect member of a new board that includes Alan Morley, the former Bristol and England wing. When Morley approached Hill about becoming head coach Hill was in two minds. After 11 years as the Bath scrum-half and 29 caps for England, Hill found professional coaching a mixed blessing. He had four seasons as director of rugby at Gloucester before taking roles as an assistant at Ebbw Vale, Harlequins and Newport.

"Before the clubs in Wales were regionalised I was out of the door although I still had two years on my contract at Newport," Hill, 43, said. "I was the only non-Welsh coach in the country and the writing was on the wall. With a young family I didn't want another job as head coach, but the challenge with Bristol was too good to turn down. It's been superb."

With Martin Haag, the ex-Bath lock, as his deputy (they live in the same street in Bath), Hill recruited seven players this season including Jim Brownrigg, Darren Crompton, Ed Pearce and Matt Salter. Salter, the captain, misses today's game because of a broken wrist. The thing is they are all returning to their roots. Most of the younger players in the squad are on a salary of between £15,000 and £20,000; the playing budget is £650,000 compared to Worcester's £1.8m when they went for the big push last season.

"It annoys me to see players getting six- figure sums who are worth nothing like that," Hill said. You have to have a sensible budget. Bristol have gone bust twice and it would be crazy to make the same mistakes again."

There's the rub. Promotion and relegation are a treasurer's duodenal ulcer. With a solitary defeat to Plymouth, Bristol are top of National League One and the board, Bristolians to a man, are beginning to have sleepless nights.

"Our goal was to finish in the top three," Hill points out. "We didn't plan on gaining promotion this season but things have gone better than anticipated. It's still early days and there are a lot of matches to be played but we have to think of the best-case scenario. I was going to sign six players in the summer but all that might have to change. We are one of the few clubs that satisfy the criteria for going up. Our supporters have been through hard times but they're alive and kicking and following us everywhere. In the past there were too many overseas players and the connection with the public was lost. That's been reversed. The local schools and clubs are enthusiastic again. Everything has the feel of a good old-fashioned rugby club."

When Worcester were promoted the first thing they did was recruit 14 new players and attachment to the club or the area meant little. Bristol remain a force because the bulk of the under-21 squad were signed up.

"If we went up, and I emphasise the word if," Hill said, "we would have to increase the size and quality of the team but I'd hope the young players who are here now would be rewarded. They turn up for training in beaten up old Pandas. They are good kids, highly motivated and they want Premiership rugby."

If Bristol lose to Wasps they will revert to defending the Powergen Shield but it's being at the summit of National League One that is concentrating the minds of everyone at the Memorial Stadium. On 8 January they play London Welsh. The Exiles once boasted more lions than Longleat but have been left behind in Kew and exist in a semi-professional twilight.

Josh Hill, a scrum-half at Bath since the age of seven, is currently out of action having dislocated a shoulder practising judo. He does not intend to follow his father into professional rugby. He wants to study medicine and become a doctor, after gaining a black belt.