Let's relish this great challenge, says Bristol Rugby coach Liam Middleton
LIAM Middleton believes his Bristol players are facing "one of sport's great challenges" as they battle to save their season against Cornish Pirates tomorrow.
Middleton's men trail 45-24 from the first leg of their Championship semi-final in Penzance five days ago and are on the brink of having their Aviva Premiership dream wiped out.
But the head coach, who will not be able to confirm his starting line-up until today due to a raft of close injury calls, has challenged his players to produce a performance that lives long in the memory.
Injury-hit Bristol must overturn a 21-point deficit against a Pirates side brimming with confidence – but Middleton is not giving up on his promotion dream.
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"We've faced a fair bit of adversity already his season – and we've shown in those games what resolve and character we have," said Middleton.
"This is probably the biggest one we will face for a long time, so you either look at it downheartedly or you say 'this is one of sport's great challenges'.
"And I don't think there is any other way to look at it than that – a massive challenge but also an opportunity.
"It's always possible in sport. We've pushed our backs right to the wall now and all we can do is show our character, show pride in the shirt and make sure that one poor performance doesn't unravel a whole season of work."
Bristol finished top of the Championship in the regular season and then won Pool A with the best record of all the sides involved across the two promotion play-off pools.
But a desperate, error-strewn final quarter in Penzance, after almost 11 months of hard work, has left them on the verge of crashing out of the play-offs at the penultimate stage.
"If you were a betting man, you'd bet against us," said Middleton. "I know Pirates were very swift to claim underdog status, but they can't do that now.
"Mistakes are what cost you games at this point of the season – you have to do the basics right. We didn't do that in those last 20 minutes on Monday and we paid for it – and it's put us where we are now.
"The bipolar nature of the emotions at the end of the 80 minutes on Sunday will be so far apart it's unbelievable. It will either be ecstasy or despair – and that's sport."
But rather than attempt to throw caution to the wind from the first whistle tomorrow, Middleton is taking a more pragmatic approach to plotting what would be one of sport's greatest comebacks.
"You have to try to win the game first," he said. "Win it first and then try to win it by the required margin.
"But we have to remember that Cornish Pirates will come to win the game as well. Our strategy has to be to win the game and then try to build enough pressure to win it by a strong enough margin."
Bristol yesterday announced a team for tomorrow's game – but that is likely to change, subject to fitness tests on a number of players, including prop Jason Hobson (knee).
Bristol: J Goodridge; J Tovey, F Otto, L Eves, W Helu; M James, R Tipuna; M Irish, J Harris-Wright, W Thompson, B Glynn, R Winters, H Vanderglas, J Merriman (capt), D Montagu. Reps: T Channon, M Lilley, M Sambucetti, M Mama, R Pennycook, T Slater, T Roberts.
Cornish Pirates: R Cook; G Pointer, S Hill, A Suniula, D Doherty; C Thomas, G Cattle (capt); C Rimmer, D Ward, A Paver, L McGlone, I Nimmo, C Morgan, P Burgess, K Marriott. Reps: R Storer, R Elloway, R Brits, M Smith, D Ewers, T Kessell, M Evans.