Shock exit from Bristol Rugby for prop Mark Irish
LIAM Middleton is keeping tight-lipped about Mark Irish's shock exit from Bristol – but acknowledged the prop's departure had been "a late decision".
Bristol yesterday announced their retained list for the 2012-13 season – with Irish and No 8 Dan Montagu among the biggest-name departures from the squad.
The club had initially been due to confirm Montagu's surprise exit – but it was thought that Irish, despite much speculation, would be staying on with the Championship semi-finalists.
However, when Bristol published their final retained list, Irish's name was included among those leaving the club. To add to the confusion, the club later removed the article in which his exit was confirmed from their official website.
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Head coach Middleton, who yesterday oversaw the Bristol squad's first day of pre-season training and completed the signing of lock George Biagi, was unable to shed much light on the Irish situation.
But he did say: "It was a late decision from him and we can't say anything until the procedures and paperwork have been signed."
Whether Irish's "decision" revolved around accepting the terms of a contract termination being offered to him or requesting to be released from his deal remains unclear – and the loosehead was not available for comment last night.
But the unexpected saga surrounding two popular and respected members of the Bristol pack has undoubtedly cast an unwanted shadow over the start of the club's preparations for the new season.
It has also somewhat taken the focus off the arrival of 26-year-old lock Biagi, who was born in Scotland to Italian parents but has played his senior rugby exclusively in his fatherland.
Middleton compared the former Aironi man's style of play to that of South African star Victor Matfield – and sees him making a big impact in the Championship.
Biagi played 25 times for RaboDirect Pro12 side Aironi last season, including Heineken Cup appearances against Clermont Auvergne and Ulster. He previously played for Cavalieri Prato and Parma.
"I watched him in the RaboDirect and the Heineken Cup last season and he is a very good player," said Middleton. "He is a developing player, which fits the profile of players we want coming to Bristol. We get them in at one point, and six months later they are considerably better. I think George fits that profile, although he also starts from a good level.
"He is a No 5, a very mobile, athletic line-out operator. For me, he is almost in the same mould as Victor Matfield – he is that kind of second-row forward and he fits the bill for us 100 per cent. I think he is a good signing."
England captain Chris Robshaw has been ruled out of the final Test against South Africa with a cracked right thumb. Hooker Dylan Hartley will take over as captain for Saturday's clash in Port Elizabeth.