Play-off salvation is now Bristol's best opportunity
THE Championship's play-off system has been Bristol's nemesis in two of the past three seasons, with the club lamenting the change from the first-past-the-post system.
After topping the table in both 2009-10 and 2011-12, Bristol went on to fall in the play-offs – but circumstances may force them to embrace the format this season.
Because, after losing for a third straight match and a fourth in six games so far this season, Bristol are already 18 points behind leaders Newcastle and 16 adrift of Bedford in second.
Even at this early stage of the campaign, Bristol's only realistic hope of being involved in the promotion shake-up is to sneak into the top four on the back of a much-improved sequence of results.
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The play-offs may not be Bristol's favoured format – but now they represent their only hope, and even then nothing is guaranteed. Saturday's performance at Rotherham showed a marked improvement on their previous two offerings – but the reality is that Bristol have already fallen six points off the top four places.
Their next two league matches are at home to Bedford, who are unbeaten and averaging more than 42 points per match, and away at Nottingham, who are third after making an impressive start.
In any sport, improvement is eventually measured in only one unit – the points column – and, at some stage in the very near future, Bristol will need to start delivering victories, just as they did regularly last season.
At Rotherham, they led 6-0 and 13-10 and more than matched their opponents for long stretches of the match, playing the better rugby in the first half and only conceding the initiative when Kyle Traynor was sin-binned and the hosts forced a penalty try after a series of five-metre scrums.
"They're a very heavy side, so you need your full scrum on the field and we didn't have that," said head coach Liam Middleton. "That was probably the difference in the end."
When prop Traynor saw yellow, Middleton sent on Mark Lilley for No 8 Mitch Eadie, and switched Luke Eves from the centre to the back row for the following scrum, from which Rotherham forced the penalty try.
He said the policy of taking off a recognised back-rower was the club's protocol in such instances, but that it was essentially a Catch-22 situation for any team that loses a front-row player to the sin-bin.
"We put Luke Eves onto the scrum and he's a former back-rower and has done practice on the scrum," said Middleton.
"If you drop a back, they could move it wide and score, so you never know which way to do it. That's our protocol and I think we can always review it, but that's what we went with."
Rotherham's combination of physical bulk and their narrow pitch, a mixture that diminishes the effectiveness of playing a wide game and places increasing emphasis on the midfield collisions, was always going to test Bristol.
But the visitors coped for the majority of the afternoon, even if their scrum was regularly under pressure, and it was only when Rotherham had a numerical advantage – with an hour of the game played – that they were finally able to assert control.
That Bristol sealed a losing bonus point offered them at least a small tangible sign of progress – but their undoubted improvement on previous defeats against Leeds and Moseley was not enough to make up for a fourth defeat in six Championship matches this season.
"Particularly in the first half, we probably just didn't put a couple of chances away, but I don't think it was too much about what we were doing – they're a very good side, very strong, and they just held out enough to keep us out," said Middleton. "I thought we played well in both halves, but there's a ten per cent part of our game that wasn't accurate enough – and that's where we went wrong."
Matthew Jones kicked Bristol into a 6-0 lead with two penalties, before Ted Stagg's break paved the way for Alex Rieder to eventually tunnel over on the right for the home side, with Garry Law converting.
That saw Bristol trail 10-6 at the break, but David McIlwaine wisely ignored an overlap 12 minutes after the restart and cut inside to score a fine try. Jones' conversion made it 13-10 to Bristol – but their progress was checked by Rotherham's penalty try, with Tristan Roberts securing a losing bonus point when he responded to Law's 75th-minute penalty, which had looked as if it would send the visitors home empty-handed.