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Bristol Rugby: A tale of two halves

Tainton’s first game was a 31-25 loss away to Worcester in the Anglo-Welsh cup. Matters did start to look brighter however as Tom Varndell, the second highest try scorer in Premiership history, returned to the team to score. Then, Bristol took on Sale Sharks in the Anglo-Welsh Cup and got revenge for their defeat a few weeks ago to win 26-11—their first victory of the season had finally come, albeit at the eleventh attempt. The arrival of Jason Woodward seemed to boost Bristol as he scored on his debut and Bristol looked a changed side from the one under Robinson.

Then came the big derby against Bath, as the sides met in the league for the first time in seven years. A revived Bristol side played some of their best defensive rugby of the season, but Bath’s quality showed as they edged through 16-9 despite some late Bristol pressure. In spite of the loss there were many positives to be gleaned from the game. Not just the solidity of Bristol’s defence, but their movement in attack was hitting heights that hadn’t been reached since the Quin’s game at the start of the season, with only some last ditch Bath scrambling stopping Bristol from gaining a draw.

Up next at home came Leicester Tigers, former Premiership title-winner. A spirited Bristol performance brought one more bonus point in a 21-16 defeat but still they were without that much needed first league win. Away at Gloucester, Bristol were very solid and compact, so found themselves 6-0 up at the break from two Jason Woodward penalties. By the 58th minute however this lead had disintegrated as Gloucester stormed into a 19-6 lead and despite an 80th minute comeback Bristol couldn’t find their third bonus point in a row succumbing 26-18.

A double header in the Challenge Cup served Bristol with a refreshing change from their league struggles as Pau were beaten home and away comfortably. Four Tom Varndell tries over the two games gave Bristol a 41-14 win at Ashton Gate followed up by a 28-18 victory at the Stade de Hameau. These two games seemed to boost Bristol as they took on Worcester in front of over 16,000 spectators on Boxing Day. Tusi Pisi returned from injury to complete an almost ideal Bristol side which went into an early lead thanks to the revitalised Tom Varndell. Events then turned sour as Tusi Pisi was sent off for tackling Worcester’s fly half Jamie Shillock in the air. Worcester took advantage, taking a 13-10 lead but Varndell was at it again, diving into the corner to give Bristol an 18-13 half time lead. There was a sense of hope around Ashton Gate as it seemed that despite being a man down Bristol looked like picking up a much needed win. However, this seemed to fade as Worcester pulled it back to 21-20 after a brilliant solo try by Dean Hammond. As had happened for the last few weeks, Varndell seemed to relish the moment as he went over for his 2nd consecutive hat trick and his 7th try in 3 games. Bristol managed to hold on and just as importantly didn’t give Worcester a bonus point in what was a very entertaining, whilst be immensely nerve-racking, 28-20 win.

Bristol followed this up with a superb performance away at Sale Sharks, winning 24-23 having come back from 15-0 down at half time. Tom Varndell scored yet another try as Bristol pushed much closer to survival and another season of Premiership rugby. The next game away to Northampton Saints saw Bristol play some outstanding rugby, winning many plaudits from inside Franklin’s Gardens. A late penalty and drop goal saw Saints come through despite a try of the season contender from Jason Woodward. Coming so close to beating a star studded Northampton team is testament to the work Mark Tainton, Dwayne Peel, Mark Bakew have been doing since taking over from Andy Robinson.

What do the coming weeks hold?

With Bristol out of the Challenge Cup, and the Anglo-Welsh Cup not looking important, it seems that survival is becoming much more likely week after week. Following a disastrous start to the season, back to back league wins against Worcester and Sale have greatly increased Bristol’s chances of remaining in the division. At the time of writing Bristol find themselves a point behind Worcester at the foot of the table. It’s looking like the next weekend of Premiership fixtures is going to be massive for Bristol’s survival. They take on Harlequins at home, who have not only lost every away game this season but will also be without seven players who are on international duty. With Worcester at home to second place Saracens it looks very likely that Bristol may be able to overtake them into 11th. From then on it’s going to be a very tight end to the season and one which Bristol will hope to come out of having secured Premiership survival.