Liam Middleton praises maturity of Bristol Rugby squad
Liam Middleton has praised the maturity his Bristol squad have shown in avoiding trying to use last season's calamitous Championship semi-final defeat at Cornish Pirates as a motivational tool for this weekend's game.
Bristol fell apart in the final eight minutes at Mennaye Field in May, with a 26-24 deficit becoming an unassailable 45-24 defeat in the first leg as Pirates ran in three late tries.
Bristol won the second leg at the Memorial Stadium, 29-18, but it was not enough to progress to the final, in which London Welsh eventually beat Pirates to secure promotion to the Aviva Premiership.
Plenty has changed since Bristol's loss in Penzance – and head coach Middleton has been pleased with the way his players have approached this Sunday's game at the Memorial Stadium (3.15pm).
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"We haven't referenced last season at all, because I think there's probably a different dynamic in the group now," said Middleton. "You've got a number of players who aren't really interested in the past. What they are interested in is the next game and what this team can achieve.
"I think that is why we haven't mentioned last season at all, which is a good thing. I think it's a great sign. You can get tempted into using it as a psychological tool or a bit of leverage for motivation – but there hasn't been a requirement for that.
"I think that may be because there's a more mature dynamic here now. I don't mean mature in age – but in terms of experience and ambition. Because we've got a number of players who have a positive and forward-looking mindset, it helps.
"In the same vein, we didn't get hit hard by the Newcastle loss (on the opening day of the season) – it happened and we actually came away with some positivity, which we took to Doncaster a week ago."
Bristol responded to their 37-20 loss to Newcastle by toughing out an 18-9 win at Doncaster – and Middleton is seeking further improvement against a team he feels are almost certain to secure a top-four Championship finish this season.
"I can't see them finishing outside the top four," he said. "They've had a number of changes, but they have replaced good players with good players. This game feels a bit like a derby. I know it's not a derby – but it's always a good game and always a massive game.
"Our target is to try to get five or ten per cent better every week. If we can keep doing that, then we'll move in the right direction.
"I saw a big improvement from the (pre-season) Munster game to the Newcastle game, and a big improvement again from Newcastle to Doncaster – not in terms of results, but in terms of the things we were doing."
Middleton, who welcomes Iain Grieve, James Grindal, Matt Williams, Marco Mama and David McIlwaine back into the selection fold, but loses hooker Ross Johnston (knee), may freshen up his starting XV this weekend and said: "We need to keep strengthening and we need to keep competition strong, so we might make a few changes to keep the squad raising the bar all the time."
Bristol centre Luke Eves, like many of his team-mates, is taking a long-term view to the season ahead – and, as a result, is unconcerned by the opening-weekend defeat to Newcastle in his side's last home outing.
"I think everyone knows that this league isn't won in the first quarter or first half of the season," said the 23-year-old. "You do have the odd blip now and again, and, let's be honest, Newcastle are a good side, so we always knew it would be tough. But we're building, hopefully game by game, and will be peaking at the latter end of the season."