Cup win helps Bristol Rugby to exorcise their league woes
THE British & Irish Cup has had its critics – a lot of them, too – but at times it has also acted as a much-needed fillip and stimulant for Bristol's fortunes.
The club's otherwise anti-climactic 2010-11 season was saved by winning the competition, giving the players the kind of boost they needed ahead of the following season, which they started magnificently and ended up finishing top of the Championship.
This season, they are in a spot of bother after three straight Championship defeats, but the B&I Cup – the much maligned, distant, ugly relative of the Heineken Cup – has once again come to their rescue.
Liam Middleton – and Paul Hull before him – had at times used the competition for blooding youngsters and experimentation. But this season, not only are many of those youngsters already fully integrated to the squad due to injuries, results have dictated that there is far less scope for rotation, trial and error.
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After three straight defeats had seen them plummet to ninth in the Championship table, Bristol needed a win at the weekend, regardless of how, where or in which competition it came.
And again, in their hour of need, the B&I Cup was there to help them exorcise some of their recent demons and allow them to experience that winning feeling for the first time since September 16.
Not that it came easily – and nor could one expect that to be case given the trials and tribulations of the previous three weekends.
Bristol dominated the early possession and territory, only to trail 9-6 at the break. But, after recovering from conceding a try not even two minutes into the second half, they rallied admirably, showing plenty of creativity, determination and steel in the opposition 22 to eventually run out deserving victors.
Head coach Middleton said: "In the first half, we applied some pressure and didn't come away with the points we needed. They got a couple of penalties and suddenly they were 9-6 ahead.
"But we were probably a little bit tense in that first half, whereas in the second half we came out and we were a bit more ourselves. That happens when you lose a few games – you maybe try harder than you've done before and it affects the flow of the game.
"In the second half, I thought we played tactically very well and the flow came back to us – we made a lot of line-breaks in that second half."
Whether Saturday's victory at the Arms Park, in the shadow of the Millennium Stadium, will provide a permanent turning point in Bristol's season, a positive fork in the road, clearly remains to be seen.
After Ulster visit the Memorial Stadium on Sunday, the focus shifts back to the league and a visit from Bedford, before an away trip to Nottingham. The resilience and willingness to attack they showed in the Welsh capital will come under greater scrutiny in those two contests.
But the fact is that Bristol have rediscovered what it takes to win – and that is all they really wanted to get from Saturday's trip across the Second Severn Crossing.
Ryan Edwards, who scored Bristol's first try and then had two further scores chalked off, summed up the significance of securing the victory, any victory, when he said: "We needed that win to get us some go-forward for the rest of the season – and that's going to give us a massive confidence boost for the rest of the season in the Championship."
Bristol's words, not to mention their second-half performance at the Arms Park, must now be followed up with another performance this weekend and then another and another.
But their initial response to their recent troubles was impressive. After Joe Griffin had outscored Matthew Jones by three penalties to two in a dire first half, Bristol conceded a try within two minutes of the restart, Cory Allen being afforded far too much space.
But they fought back impressively, Edwards making the most of an advantage for a deliberate knock-on to dive over from close range. An off-the-ball skirmish saw Cardiff's Ellis Jenkins red-carded and Bristol's Mariano Sambucetti sin-binned, before Bristol controlled the closing stages.
Tristan Roberts kicked the visitors back in front at 16-14. And Mitch Eadie, who impressed for Bristol at the back of the scrum, made the victory safe when he burrowed over late on, with Roberts again finding the middle of the posts.