Bristol Rugby: 'We've been here before and we know what to expect now', says Mark Irish
MARK Irish has seen just about everything in his eight years with Bristol – promotion, relegation and a near-miss, not to mention financial crises and the arrival of Steve Lansdown as owner.
But the 30-year-old prop believes the whole club has been given 'a new lease of life' under Liam Middleton this season – and, as a result, is confident heading into Monday's Championship semi-final first leg against Cornish Pirates.
Bristol, who topped the Championship after the 22-game regular season, won their play-off pool and are potentially four games from a return to the Aviva Premiership.
While the temptation at this stage may be to start thinking about the prize that is up for grabs, Irish and his team-mates are simply focusing on replicating what has served them so well throughout the season.
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"It's important now that we keep doing what we've been doing all year," said Irish.
"That has worked for us and has got us this far – and we realise it's going to take another monumental effort to get past the Pirates.
"They've been in this situation before and they understand the situation and the competition – as do we. In our camp, there's great competition for places and we're confident we can go down to Pirates and get a result.
"Throughout the whole season, our process has been to concentrate on ourselves – and the results have then come our way off the back of that.
"What we've been doing has worked for us and it's just a case of doing it again on Monday."
Bristol finished eighth in the Championship a year ago and scraped into the promotion play-offs, where they lost all but one of their games. This season, though, they head into the semi-finals as the only team unbeaten in the play-off pool stage – and with a coach in Middleton who has revitalised an entire club.
"We're in-form at the moment – our results show that," said Irish. "We're the only team in the play-offs not to have lost a game, even if we have drawn two, and we're looking forward to getting going again this weekend.
"We've had a weekend off, we're fresh, training has been good, there is a buzz in the camp and we're excited about the challenge.
"I think we've had a new lease of life this season. Liam has come in as head coach and he's brought new things to the table and kept us on our toes. You are always excited about going to training and excited about that next game.
"As soon as one finishes, you're ready to go onto the next. It's a good environment and there's a great group of players we've got here.
"At the moment, confidence is high and we're thoroughly enjoying the training."
Irish is expected to line up on Monday alongside a host of players who have been through the good times and the bad at Bristol – men such as Roy Winters, Iain Grieve, James Merriman and Jason Hobson.
"They're good friends off the pitch as well as on it – and a lot of that pack has been together for quite a while," said Irish. "This is my eighth season now, so I've been through a promotion, a relegation and a near miss – but we can leave that one out! For me, this is one of the most exciting seasons I've been involved in.
"We're not going into the unknown anymore. We've been here before and we know what to expect now."