There's been an extra edge to training, says Bristol Rugby head coach Liam Middleton
LIAM Middleton has detected an extra edge in training this week as Bristol prepare for two games the head coach feels will define his team's season.
Fourth-placed Bristol travel to Bedford, who are second in the Championship, on Saturday, before hosting third-placed Nottingham six days later.
They will go into this weekend seven points adrift of Nottingham and one clear of both Cornish Pirates and Leeds, so Middleton is making no attempt to play down the significance of the next two games.
Since losing at Nottingham in November, Bristol have won ten of their last 11 games, including their last four in succession.
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Middleton said: "We've never been a group that has got over-confident – that's not part of the value-set of the club. We've always kept the guys' feet on the ground, even throughout last season.
"But, rightly so, they are pretty confident but also quite wary of Bedford. Our training has had a lot of edge, and a big-game feel, to it. The guys know that this is big, so while we would never get carried away, I think there is a quiet confidence.
"You do try to level it out, but the Bedford home game (Bristol's 23-13 win in October) felt like this, too. It's always a big game between Bedford and Bristol – we've usually been top four or five teams – and we know how big Saturday's result will be either way."
If Bristol can beat both Bedford and Nottingham, they will virtually cement their place in the Championship play-offs, while a defeat or two would leave them with plenty of work to do. And Middleton is not shying away from the importance of the next two weekends.
"We've got two massive games in a short period of time and I think they are defining games for us in our season," he said.
"What's good for us is probably that we've got belief more than confidence – that's a distinction we should make.
"It's a deep-seated, quiet belief that we are going to play our best rugby towards the end of the season, we are coming into our best form and teams should stand up and take notice of us.
"We've been written off – we're not even underdogs anymore – and I think that has probably spurred the guys on a bit.
"Plus, an outstanding attacking performance last weekend has added to that belief."
Bristol were 61-12 winners over Cardiff in the British & Irish Cup on Friday evening, scoring nine tries in a slick attacking display that cheered Middleton ahead of Saturday's trip to Bedford.
"I thought that was the ideal game for us before Bedford," said Middleton. "There were some guys who hadn't played for a while who came in and played well and that gave them a boost.
"But also, the guys who didn't play have got to sit up and think, 'I'm going to have to really perform to hang on to my shirt' and the competition goes up.
"Cardiff weren't that bad but we were very good. It was as if they were average and we were very good. And being very good in that game will benefit us. We've scored 13 tries in our last two games, which is fantastic for us."
Bristol will be without long-term absentees Roy Winters, Iain Grieve and Bryan Rennie this weekend, while Mike Tagicakibau also looks set to miss out again. But, aside from the suspended Jason Hobson, everyone else is available.