Ryan and Jack deserve their chance against Newcastle, says Bristol Rugby coach
BRISTOL are ready to turn to youngsters Ryan Edwards and Jack Gadd to solve their back-line dilemma when Newcastle visit the Memorial Stadium this weekend.
Head coach Liam Middleton is without injured full-back Jack Tovey, wingers Matt Williams and George Watkins and centres Bryan Rennie and Fautua Otto for Sunday's Championship opener.
Those absences have forced Middleton into a midfield reshuffle – and he has made it clear he has no qualms about handing starts to 21-year-old duo Edwards and Gadd.
Winger Edwards, pictured, and centre Gadd featured prominently during pre-season for Bristol – but neither has much competitive first-team experience.
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However, Middleton said: "Ryan Edwards and Jack Gadd train as well as anyone else and they have put themselves firmly in the picture through good performances.
"They earn their positions from that and I have massive confidence in those guys and have done for some while. The fact we've exposed them in the pre-season games has meant they have really come to the fore and stamped their ownership on a shirt."
Middleton is without nine first-team players this weekend – seven of them backs, with fly-half Adrian Jarvis ruled out through illness – for the visit of relegated Newcastle, who are many pundits' favourites for promotion to the Aviva Premiership.
Prop Jason Hobson is also injured, while fellow forwards Alafoti Faosiliva and Gaston Cortes are yet to receive the documentation to allow them to play in this country.
"Midfield and back three is pretty much where we've been hit – but that's the way it happens with injuries," said Middleton. "The Stormers in Super 15 have had four injuries in one position and they have had their hooker playing in the back row in a semi-final.
"But it's a good time for it to happen if it's going to happen – and we're not particularly concerned about the length of those injuries, they are all medium-term injuries.
"These first three or four games of the season really have very little impact on the league table. I think they have very little impact on defining what a team will do in this season.
"It's a great game for us to kick off with but it actually means very little in the big picture, apart from being pretty proud of winning a game."
Bristol finished top of the Championship at the end of the regular season last term, and then won their play-off pool, only to be knocked out in the semi-finals by Cornish Pirates.
But Middleton believes the tag of favourites is firmly planted on Newcastle this season, following their controversial relegation from the Premiership.
"We started last season with pretty humble expectations, but by Christmas we'd established a top-of-the-league position and then we were labelled as favourites," said Middleton.
"We carried that, and I was quite pleased to carry that expectation. I think, with the group of players we have, we were never adversely affected by being favourites.
"This year, we're not going to fight for the favourites tag – I think it's very much with Newcastle and they will carry the expectation throughout the season, and rightly so.
"They were preparing to be competitive in the Premiership and suddenly the trapdoor was opened from underneath them. So I think the expectation they will carry is justified."