Tim Glover: Hill tries to fashion a future for Bristol

Pundits predict instant relegation but the new boys have the character to surprise

It was not a problem that Hill had anticipated. When he signed Regan, a one-time England and Lions hooker, from Leeds it was long before the end of Bristol's run in National League One, but promotion to the Guinness Premiership was secured 12 months earlier than planned.

So today Regan, an MBE from England's World Cup campaign, finds himself back in the eye of a needle match, the West Country derby against Bath. Born in Bristol 33 years ago, he learnt and played all his rugby there before, in 1997, he committed what Bristolians consider to be the ultimate sin - he joined Bath.

"A small group of supporters might be surprised that he's come home," Hill said, "but the vast majority know what he's about. He will play his heart out for us and he's a proven winner. There's something about Bristol. It has quite a hold on people. I'm hoping to get more of our boys back. The club's gone bust twice and players never left because they wanted to, it was more out of necessity."

Two seasons ago they dropped out of the Premiership when Bath survived on points difference, and the state of panic in the West Country was such that there was talk of a merger, or more accurately a takeover of Bristol by their bitterest rivals.

Bristol went back to their roots, formed a management board that includes former players Alan Morley and Nigel Pomphrey and appointed John Portch, whose links with the club go back to 1956, as chief executive. Malcolm Pearce, effectively the owner when Bristol were relegated, is now one of 10 directors.

"There is no one figure in charge and uniquely we don't have a chairman," Portch said. "We see ourselves as guardians of a community club for our children and grandchildren."

Be that as it may, Hill, the former Bath and England scrum-half, and Bristol find themselves back in the Premiership big-time. It was not what Hill had in mind after four seasons as director of rugby at Gloucester and roles as an assistant at Ebbw Vale, Harlequins and Newport.

Last season the playing budget was £650,000 and most of the younger players were on salaries of less than £20,000. For this campaign the budget has doubled, and they have a new sponsor in Bass, who today will bask in a full house of 11,000 at the Memorial, the ground the club share with Bristol Rovers. "Actually," Portch said, "the capacity is just over 11,000, but football supporters stand closer together. I don't understand it either."

Hill has retained 22 of the 29 players who won promotion and has spent the summer signing another 17. "It has been frenetic," he said. "I never thought I would be recruiting on such a scale, but at this level you have to have strength in depth and you have to have a number of experienced people to help you through the difficult times.

"We have not gone mad. We have been very sensible about it. It annoys me to see players getting six-figure salaries who are worth nothing like that. I have lost a number of players who wanted too much money."

Bristol are being tipped, by most observers, for relegation in nine months' time. "I can't blame them," Hill said, "although I am satisfied that at this stage we have done everything possible to prove them wrong. I am happy with the squad I have got and the work we have put in."

Hill admitted that conceding 40 points to Harlequins in a pre-season friendly was a "bit of a shock", but they responded with a 24-22 victory over Cardiff.

The visit of Bath is something else altogether. "It's a fabulous way to start. We may as well get stuck in from the word go. We know what's coming. This will be our biggest physical test in three years. They will try to batter us into submission but we have one of the most experienced packs in the Premiership.

"We will have to gel very quickly. Last season we hardly analysed the opposition at all. We knew that, by and large, if we played our own game it would be good enough whatever our opponents did.

"This time we'll have to be a bit more pragmatic, and of course we'll have to study the other teams, but I don't want to get away from playing some really good rugby. I don't want to get involved in a dogfight with Bath with lots of kicking. We've got to take some risks. We're not going to win by slugging it out."

Bristol will not be at full strength today. They are still awaiting the arrival of the Samoan wings Brian "The Chiropractor" Lima and David Lemi, the Argentinian tighthead prop Martin Rospide and the Fijian Test scrum-half Jake Rauluni. Tommy Hayes, the stand-off who joined from Worcester, is injured. In addition to finding a family room, Hill has been busy arranging work permits and visas for his overseas players. "We've found them a few flats very close to the training ground, they're booked on flights and they should be with us within a fortnight."

Perhaps most of all it is the signings of the 33-year-old Lima and the 23-year-old Lemi that have contributed to record season-ticket sales at the Memorial Ground. "Brian will bring international experience to our back line and will also be a massive physical presence," Hill said. "David has been a star of the World Sevens Series in the past couple of years and a prolific try scorer. We came across him at the Safari Sevens in Kenya and he really caught my eye."

Bristol used to recruit from Keynsham. Now they have to go as far as Kenya.