PREVIEW: Bristol Rugby vs Bedford
JAMES Merriman felt the break for British & Irish Cup action came at an ideal time for Bristol – and is now calling for the improvement to continue in the Championship.
Bristol snapped out of their three-game losing streak with back-to-back B&I Cup wins over Cardiff and Ulster Ravens, while welcoming back a host of players from injury.
Over the past two weekends, Jack Tovey, George Watkins, Adrian Jarvis, Ross Johnston, pictured, Redford Pennycook and Merriman all returned to action to ease Liam Middleton's crippling injury crisis.
But Bristol, who are ninth in the table, are back in the Championship this weekend, when they face high-flying, free-scoring Bedford at home.
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And Merriman believes they have now come out of the difficult period that saw them lose against Leeds, Moseley and Rotherham in successive league games before the B&I Cup break.
"I think the cup came at a perfect time," said flanker Merriman.
"We had a bit of a slow start in the league, so we managed to address a few things over the past fortnight, go back to basics, and we've now got two wins to build on.
"There are a lot more smiles on faces, plus a few more numbers back in training, and we seem to be back on the up again.
"We don't want to make any excuses, but we have had a lot of injuries, which is a fact.
"So it's great to see so many of the boys back, which adds a lot more competition.
"Training has been more edgy, because boys want to get back in the team, and I think it's bringing the best out of everyone.
"I think every club goes through a tough time – and I think we've now been through our tough patch.
"Now we need to keep the confidence going into Bedford this weekend and keep moving on to give ourselves a chance in the Championship race."
While happy to accentuate the positives, Merriman is eager not to overplay the significance of a 23-14 win at the Arms Park and 34-28 success at home against Ulster's second-string in the B&I Cup, especially as he is well aware of the threat posed by Bedford.
In their eight matches so far this season, Mike Rayer's team have scored 50, 38, 55, 27, 29, 55, 45 and 87 points.
Bristol have only twice hit the 30-point mark – one of those being in the 50-31 defeat at Leeds.
"We're not getting too carried with ourselves: we've had two average wins and we know where we are," said Merriman.
"But we also know where we need to be and it's a good challenge that we're facing on Sunday.
"Bedford are second in the table for a reason: they're playing very well.
"They're scoring a lot of tries, so we need to make sure our ship is in order and not give away any soft points.
"But as long as we can express ourselves, like we did against Ulster, we believe our team spirit can pull us through.
"We have to be at our best – making good decisions and being very accurate and disciplined. We know what they're about, so we need to execute our roles.
"We've got all the systems in place but if we don't front up individually, we're going to be in for a hard afternoon."
Eight games into the season, Bristol are clearly still finding their way, but Merriman is confident they are on the verge of clicking.
"I think we are going in the right direction – it's just maybe taken us a bit longer to get there," he said.
"I think the rewards will come, though."