Bristol Rugby head coach Liam Middleton hoping to avoid final-day play-off 'lottery'
LIAM Middleton has told his Bristol players to leave nothing to chance in their quest for a top-four Championship finish. And he believes that means wrapping up a play-off place before their final-day trip to Newcastle.
Bristol travel to Kingston Park on the last day of the regular campaign to face a Newcastle side who have won all 19 matches they have played this season.
And while Middleton is confident his team could beat Newcastle over two legs in the play-offs, he does not want them to end up in a situation where they have to win at Kingston Park to make the top four.
That effectively means Bristol must go into the final weekend of the regular season six points clear of the team in fifth place. With eight matches to play, they are two points adrift of the top four.
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"It's very tight – it's one game at a time," said Middleton.
"We have to win every game, because we don't want to get to a situation where we're leaving it in other people's hands.
"At the moment, it's just in our hands, we're just hanging on to that, and we have to keep it in our hands. If you're relying on other people, it's just a lottery.
"To win at Kingston Park is difficult. We'd love to have a go at them in a Championship final at Kingston Park, because we'd be pretty confident doing that.
"But you don't want to do it in a league game that doesn't hold as much importance.
"We need it sewn up before that game, really.
"I know we talk about having eight games left, but we've got seven games left to tie it up."
Bristol travel to Billesley Common – a venue where they are yet to win – this Saturday to face Moseley.
Centre Fautua Otto, who briefly returned from a serious knee injury shortly before Christmas, has missed the last two games as he works on his strength and conditioning. And Middleton said the Samoan is now being assessed on a day-by-day basis as he closes in on a return to full fitness.
"Fautua Otto is the closest to returning of those who have been out, and his has gone from a week-by-week to a day-by-day situation," said Middleton.
"It was a catastrophic injury he had and he came back for a couple of games around Christmas and we needed to assess him after that – and we felt he needed to come out again, back into the medical room. But his is now literally a day-by-day situation."
Fellow back Mike Tagicakibau, however, is slightly further away from returning as he battles a knee/hamstring injury.
"Mike Tagicakibau's injury is ongoing and I think his is more medium-term," said Middleton. "He's not short-term – he's not going to play this weekend and he won't play next weekend. He's had a bad season with injuries, it's been an unlucky time for him."
The head coach also confirmed that long-term absentees Roy Winters (ankle) and Iain Grieve (bicep) could be in contention to return for Bristol's game against Nottingham on March 8.