Liam Middleton eyes challenge for third place in Championship after Bristol Rugby progress to British & Irish Cup quarter-finals
LIAM Middleton has turned his attention to trying to hunt down a third-place Championship finish after Bristol qualified for the last eight of the British & Irish Cup with an emphatic, nine-try victory over Cardiff.
Bristol will play at home in their cup quarter-final on Sunday, April 7 – with Leinster A their likely opponents – after a stunning 61-12 victory over Cardiff on Friday night.
And, with back-to-back matches against fellow top-four sides Bedford and Nottingham up next in the Championship, head coach Middleton is looking for his team to replicate the attacking quality they showed on Friday and close the gap on third-placed Nottingham.
After 15 Championship matches, fourth-placed Bristol have 42 points, which is seven fewer than Nottingham. And Middleton is determined to overhaul the deficit in the next seven games to ensure his side avoid Newcastle in the semi-finals.
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“Bedford is going to be a tough one – we’ve got two top-four games in the next fortnight, and Bedford away is always a tough prospect,” said Middleton, whose team travel to Goldington Road on Saturday.
“If we play like we did on Friday, if we attack like we did, we’ll score tries. If we defend like we did on Friday, we’ll hold them out, so I think the wins over both Rotherham and Cardiff were good lead-ins to the Bedford game. And I think a win at Bedford would really boost us in our attack on finishing in third place.
“Cardiff are not a bad side – you look at 61 points and you think they’re a poor side but our attack was outstanding. Even a good Championship defence would have struggled against that; that was one of our best attacking performances of the season.”
Bristol blew Cardiff away on Friday, with Ben Mosses and George Watkins both crossing twice, while Tristan Roberts, Rhys Lawrence, Wayne Thompson, Ruki Tipuna and Fautua Otto also scored tries. Roberts kicked eight of his nine conversion attempts, missing only the last one.
From an attacking perspective, it was an almost flawless performance, with some of Bristol’s movement, running lines and handling as slick as anything they have produced so far this season.
“It was great,” said Middleton. “I thought we played a really positive style of play – in dry conditions and on a fast track. I thought pieces of our attack were class.
“There were a number of tries in the game, but the last one of the first half [scored by Watkins] and the one in the left corner in the second half [also scored by Watkins] were absolute class – the quality of handling was precise. I’m feeling very, very positive about a very, very good attacking performance.”
Bristol’s policy of treating the British & Irish Cup with the same respect they show the Championship has clearly paid dividends, with Middleton’s team winning all six of their games in Pool One, including trips to Bridgend, Cardiff and Belfast.
And the head coach, who will be joined on the staff by director of rugby Andy Robinson on Friday, believes his team are coming into form at the right time of the season.
“We’ve won six out of six in quite a tough pool, with Ulster and a few tough away games,” said Middleton. “I thought it was a good finish to the pool competition for us and we’ve got a home quarter-final now. If we play like we did against Cardiff, who knows what could happen from here?
“I’ve said from the start that the two competitions have got to complement each other, and we’ve changed nothing in our preparation and our mindset between a Championship game and a B&I Cup game.
“We just want to keep winning one game at a time. We’re now, I genuinely believe, finding our momentum – we’re starting to hit that upward curve to our peak and it’s just about getting a little bit better each time we play.”