A whole catalogue of firsts for Bristol, then: a first Twickenham final of the professional era beckons, as does a first taste of the Heineken Cup high life. The famous old West Country club can even claim to have broken new medical ground as a result of this fraught play-off victory over Northampton, for their master of ceremonies is the first man diagnosed as suffering from Contepomitis – a ruinous condition that parts the victim from his own larynx every time he utters the name of a certain Argentinian, leaving him with the voice of a tormented eunuch.
Felipe Contepomi was in scoring mood on Saturday – indeed, he scored on 10 occasions, and every time he did so, the ecstatic announcer felt compelled to broadcast the news at a decibel level far greater than anything generated by Led Zeppelin during their mega-amplified heyday. Contepomi, a student doctor, should have been more aware than most of the painful consequences of his own magnificence. He will be forgiven, though. The whole of Bristol is in love with him right now.
"Contepomi is quick," conceded Wayne Smith, the Northampton coach. "He is good in impact, he's strong defensively and he kicks well. He looked like what he is out there today: an international outside-half." Smith knows his onions – he performed the same role for the All Blacks 20 years ago – and is of the opinion that if the gifted Puma produces something similar against England in Buenos Aires later this month, the tourists will have it all to do to win the Test.
It is difficult to exaggerate the significance of this win to Bristol, a genuine rugby community fallen on hard times. Since they last made the trip to Twickenham 14 years ago, they have gone through eight head coaches, fought a civil war with the most dictatorial committee in English club rugby and experienced the humiliation of relegation and administration. "This place has been on its knees," acknowledged Dean Ryan, the current director of rugby. To have broken into the Heineken Cup élite is an achievement beyond the dreams of the 5,000 or so regulars who have kept the faith through thick and thin.
But nothing is as it seems at Bristol. Two of the men responsible for dragging the club up the mountainside, Ryan and his chief executive, Jack Rowell, are the subject of hot rumour – the former has been linked with an apparent coaching vacancy at Gloucester, the latter with a definite managerial vacancy at Bath. Meanwhile, the third member of the triumvirate at the head of the Memorial Ground operation, the millionaire financier Malcolm Pearce, is reported to have fallen out with both colleagues. The threat of wholesale change at the top undermines the accomplishments of the last few weeks.
As Ryan conceded after Saturday's game, Bristol have been so frazzled for so long that the basic act of winning an important game of rugby is ridiculously complicated. Certainly, they might easily have spurned the prizes on offer against Northampton, even though they dominated territory and possession for long periods. Had it not been for Contepomi's sureness of touch in the closing stages, there would probably have been tears before bedtime.
Craig Moir and Nick Beal made gorilla–sized apes of the Bristol defence before discovering imaginative new ways of failing to score, while Paul Grayson, dependability made flesh when it comes to the kicking duties, was unusually wayward. Yet the biggest challenge to Bristol's well-being was mounted by one of their own, Neil McCarthy, who was gormless enough to tackle Moir without the ball while the wing was still 60 metres from the danger zone. During the 10 minutes McCarthy spent off, the Midlanders claimed tries through Grant Seely and Andrew Blowers and established a one-point lead that seemed more likely to expand than to shrivel.
Cue Contepomi. The South American had already notched two tries – the first on 17 minutes after an intelligent contribution from Phil Christophers, the second just after the interval – but his most destructive weapon is concealed in his right boot. When John Leslie clattered into a tackle from an offside position as Bristol laid siege to the Northampton line, Contepomi kicked a lead-restoring penalty. When Dom Malone took a poke at the prone figure of Ben Sturnham, he hit the spot again. And when Blowers failed to release on the floor near halfway, Contepomi struck a pearl of a penalty to put his team out of range.
Should Bristol win this week's Zurich Championship final, they will be England's second seeds behind Leicester in Europe next term. It is a weird scenario, for sure: if Bristol are the next best team in the country, President Bush is a communist. But if they land themselves a decent draw they possess the physical qualities to prosper.
Bristol: Tries Contepomi 2. Conversions Contepomi 2. Penalties Contepomi 6. Northampton: Tries Blowers 2, Seely. Penalties Grayson 3.
Bristol: L Best; M Carrington, D Rees, J Little (capt), P Christophers; F Contepomi, A Pichot; D Crompton (P Johnstone, 49), N McCarthy, E Bergamaschi (Crompton, 59), G Archer (A Sheridan, 49), A Brown, C Short, M Lipman (R Beattie, 67), B Sturnham.
Northampton: N Beal; J Brooks, M Webster, J Leslie, C Moir; P Grayson, D Malone; M Stewart (C Budgen, 49), S Thompson, R Morris, J Phillips (R Hunter, 50), O Brouzet, A Blowers, A Pountney (capt), G Seely (M Soden, 67).
Referee: C White (Gloucestershire).
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