Bristol Rugby show doubters they have what it takes
THAT was more like it. A week after being torn apart at Nottingham, and after plenty of words had been said and written, Bristol responded in the only manner – and the only place – that mattered yesterday.
There are those who will point to the relatively meek nature of their opponents and the fact those opponents had a man sent off with 29 minutes to play, meaning they played for ten second-half minutes with 13 men.
But that barely mattered. Bristol's target yesterday was to win – whether it was ugly or beautiful – and the fact they won with a bonus point meant it was a case of mission accomplished.
They scored six tries – two from man-of-the-match Mariano Sambucetti, who may have been born in Buenos Aires, but plays with the heart of a true Bristolian, two from replacement Rhys Lawrence and one each from Redford Pennycook and George Watkins.
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Head coach Liam Middleton has put up with more questions and criticism than most since that 63-7 drubbing at Meadow Lane, so he was understandably pleased with the reaction from his players yesterday.
"It was a difficult week –a very difficult week," said Middleton. "But the most important thing after a game like that is the response.
"I praise the players, because it might have been quite easy to go into yourself and be miserable, but they came in this week ready to work hard and get better – and that's why we got a response like this.
"It wasn't perfect, but there's a long time and a long way to go to get perfect. But that performance was more like us and I think we're going to encourage ourselves to play more like that, because we're a real danger when we do."
Bristol grew into the game – starting off, perhaps understandably, as nervous as kittens on Guy Fawkes night, before becoming as confident as lions the longer the game went on.
They rode early pressure from Jersey, fell 3-0 behind to a Mike Le Bourgeois penalty, and saw Adrian Jarvis miss four successive shots at the posts.
But their belief did not appear to waver, and, after Watkins benefited from Jack Tovey's speed of thought and sleight of hand to race away down the right and score the game's first try, the pressure lifted.
It helped that Jersey hooker Dave Felton saw yellow for pulling down a maul, and, while he was in the sin-bin, Pennycook went over from close range.
Jarvis' wastefulness – he squandered ten points worth of kicks – allowed Jersey to stay in touch, but the hosts struck a crucial blow on the stroke of half-time when Sambucetti burrowed over and David McIlwaine knocked over the conversion.
That made it 17-6 – and, with Bristol's defence tightening up after the break and their set-piece functioning effectively, there was little in the way of concern over a Jersey fight-back. When Ashley Maggs, a former Colston's School student, was sent off for a dangerous tip-tackle on Tovey, and No 8 Guy Thompson was sin-binned for entering a ruck from the side, Bristol were firmly in command.
Lawrence replaced Ross Johnston and, within 30 seconds of being on the field, had secured a bonus point for Bristol by going over following a line-out. Sambucetti then made it five tries for the hosts from close-range, before Lawrence added further salt into Jersey's wounds after they had seen the lively Le Bourgeois carried off on a stretcher.
Credit to the visitors, though, who kept going and breached Bristol's line in the dying seconds. But even Middleton could not be too disheartened at that, having seen his team return to winning ways at the first opportunity, and with such a confident display.
Bristol may still have conceded a few penalties too many – but they had something they lacked at Nottingham: a hard, resilient edge, which was in no small part down to the return of both Sambucetti and Jason Hobson.
"We know what those guys can bring, and it was Hobbo's first game back, so he was raring to go and I think he made an impact on the game, which is great," said Middleton.
"But this was very much a 15-man performance with some really top-class performances. For me, all-round, there were contributions from everyone and that highlights the ambition for the team to do well – this is a collective group who want to do well.
"I think we've got to learn lessons from the Nottingham game, because it can creep up on you again. It's an unpleasant situation but we've got to be mentally tough enough to not sweep it under the carpet and say 'it never happened'.
"It did happen and we'll reference it in the future, but this response is the more important part.
"Now we've got to plot our way forward and plot our way up the league to be where we want to be."