I'm glad our weaknesses were highlighted, insists Middleton
LIAM Middleton is happy his Bristol team's weaknesses were exposed on the opening day of the season – and not further down the line – because they now have eight months to put things right.
Bristol were well beaten, if not outclassed, by recently-relegated Newcastle, who won 37-20 at the Memorial Stadium yesterday, gaining a bonus point in the process.
The defeat was Bristol's first at home in a Championship match since April 2011 – but head coach Middleton, who was without nine senior players, at least knows at the earliest possible stage of the season where his team must improve.
He also believes Newcastle are "a pretty average side" if fly-half Jimmy Gopperth can be nullified – something he feels will give every side in the Championship confidence that they can stop the hotly-fancied Falcons.
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Middleton said: "It has highlighted where we need to work and it has highlighted where our weaknesses are – and we've got eight months to work on those weaknesses.
"I'm glad they have been highlighted now. Sometimes, you get five easy games and it takes you six weeks to find out where your weaknesses are – but ours were exposed today.
"But, saying that, I really believe that, without Jimmy Gopperth, Newcastle are not out of the league of the top four teams we played last year. I think Pirates posed us more challenges and Bedford posed us more challenges than Newcastle did today.
"Jimmy Gopperth was the difference – and I think that will give a lot of confidence to the rest of the teams in our league. There is only one man – and, if you nullify him, they are a pretty average side."
With Bristol missing players such as Fautua Otto, Bryan Rennie, George Watkins, Adrian Jarvis and Jack Tovey, young backs Ryan Edwards and Jack Gadd were promoted to the starting line-up.
Edwards impressed, scoring the first of Bristol's two tries, and Middleton feels he and Gadd can now enjoy a prolonged run in the Bristol first XV.
Middleton confirmed that none of those who missed out yesterday are likely to return in time for Friday's trip to Doncaster, or indeed the near future, which will offer the 21-year-old duo an extended opportunity to impress.
"I thought Ryan and Jack looked like good Championship players," he said. "They were thrown in the deep end in a big game and asked to perform – and they did that. I was really pleased with that. Marco Mama has taken a head injury, so it will be difficult to determine that for probably the next 48 hours. But apart from that there are just knocks and niggles.
"There will be no one back for Doncaster – and probably not back for another five weeks, so we are as we are for probably another five weeks.
"But a run of games for any young player is of significant value, and with some of our guys not coming back for a while, they'll have that run and then they've got to put pressure on the guy coming back."
And, despite yesterday's setback, Middleton believes his Bristol team are in a stronger position than they were a year ago.
"It is early days – and it's important not to try to define your season by your first game," he said. "If you look at some of the Premiership scores this weekend, those will be very different in eight months' time.
"I'm incredibly pleased with our progress. I look at our first game of the season last year and where we are now – and we're a completely different side all-round: in the quality of our physical state and the execution.
"The way we took to the first 50 minutes or so of that game, I thought we were very competitive. We dropped off a bit, with our execution, late in the second half – and that's what let us down."