We've got Everest to climb now - Bristol Rugby
Liam Middleton surveyed the damage of Bristol's 45-24 Championship semi-final thrashing at Cornish Pirates – and likened their challenge in Sunday's second leg to climbing Mount Everest.
Bristol, who led 14-0 at the Mennaye Field in the early stages yesterday, collapsed in the second half as Pirates took a significant step toward the Championship final.
Bristol's cause was not aided by injuries to three key forwards, with lock Glen Townson (knee) limping off after nine minutes, prop Jason Hobson (knee) lasting 29 minutes and skipper Iain Grieve injuring his shoulder 14 minutes into the second half.
All three would appear unlikely to face Pirates at the Memorial Stadium on Sunday for a semi-final second leg that has left Middleton and his players requiring little short of a sporting miracle.
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"It's always possible," said the head coach. "It's an Everest to climb, but we've found ourselves in difficult times before during this season and we've come out with the right character.
"There is still 80 minutes of rugby to play and 20-odd points in 80 minutes is achievable – but it will be unbelievably challenging.
"I'm not angry; I don't feel that way – I feel quite philosophical about it. We have to be humble and realise we were beaten today – and there's no point in taking that out on anyone; we were beaten fairly and squarely.
"We know where we need to be better than that and we'll just have to dig in and show some real character on Sunday. Whatever the result of that game is, we need to show pride in our shirts and show character.
"If that progresses us to the final, it will be a phenomenal achievement; if it doesn't, we've had a positive season with a league win and a play-offs win, even if it's maybe not the final step. But we're evolving as a team and I've said that all season."
Bristol came back from 16 points down with 18 minutes to play to beat Pirates 37-33 at the Memorial Stadium in November – but the way in which they capitulated in the final 16 minutes yesterday suggests the task now facing them is a challenge too far.
They conceded four tries in that period – five in total in the second half – as they leaked 40 points in a game for the first time since their 44-6 defeat at Rotherham in October.
And Bristol now face the agonising possibility of missing out on promotion, after topping the Championship in the regular season and the play-off pool stage, for the second time in three seasons.
Middleton, unsurprisingly, is no fan of the Championship's play-off system.
"It goes against the principle and philosophy around league rugby," he said. "We've essentially played two leagues this season – we've played a league season and a play-off season and finished top of both of those.
"When you get to a one-off game and you're hit with a couple of injuries and a bad start, that's what can happen to your game.
"We are fed up with it but it is the system we have to play and unfortunately it lends itself to these kinds of scenarios. Hopefully, the administrators who run the game will look at that and say, 'Is this really the right thing for rugby?'"
Bristol's medical staff will assess the injuries to Townson, Hobson and Grieve today – and Middleton admitted the prognosis for all three is not exactly encouraging.
"The injuries always play a part in the game, because it again halted our ability to get momentum," he said.
"But, at the moment, I can't say what state the guys are in. We'll check with our medical staff. I don't think it's good but I can't say for now what the outcome will be."