THE FOG on the Tyne, made thicker by Newcastle’s failure to take a bonus point win from Wasps on Saturday, has lifted somewhat this morning with news from west of the Tamar, writes Richard Grainger.
With a defence that was about as effective as Network Rail on a wet bank holiday, Bristol conceded five second half tries at the Mennaye Field yesterday to give themselves a mountain to climb in the return leg at the Memorial Stadium on Sunday (12.45pm).
This gives the Falcons a glimmer of hope, as it effectively removes the threat of one of the two Championship clubs to have put their hat in the ring for the Premiership. Without promotion there can be no relegation; and so, thanks to the virtual ring fencing of the top tier through the stringent grounds criteria, there could yet be Premiership rugby in the North-East next season.
An eagerly awaited statement on promotion eligibility will be made by Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Football Union later this month. One cannot help but wonder why this critical policy decision has been left until the 11th hour — but then, with the RFU’s recent track record, why wouldn’t it?
But don’t write Bristol off just yet; there is a belief that they can reverse the 21-point deficit following their 45-24 defeat at the hands of the Cornish Pirates.
“It’s an Everest to climb but we won’t give up,” Head Coach Liam Middleton announced on the club’s website. “We need to pick ourselves up this week and throw everything we have at Pirates on Sunday.”
Bristol have flattered to deceive this term; pyrrhic victories led to five defeats which left them as unconvincing winners of the league after the regular season. Their fellow semi-finalists scented blood, and yesterday the Pirates inflicted pain as well as well as humiliation, with injuries to key players — in particular Jason Hobson — which further decimates the visitors’ squad.
But like many of the Bristol faithful who have anguished over their lamentable inconsistency, Middleton believes promotion is still possible: “Twenty-one points in eighty minutes is certainly achievable. It’s half time in the tie and we have to remain upbeat, despite the disappointment of today.”
It all started so well. Bristol, with a strong breeze behind them, were 14 points up after 11 minutes, thanks to tries by James Merriman and Will Helu. First, Merriman pounced on a loose ball following a wayward Pirates’ throw close to their try line and stepped off his left foot to score. Matthew Jones converted and minutes later Fautua Otto scythed through soft-shouldered defence to feed Helu who galloped 40 metres to the line.
Rob Cook pulled three points back for the Pirates with a long-range penalty before Jones restored the 14-point margin. However, before the interval the cracks were beginning to appear with Bristol’s older and heavier pack struggling at the breakdown. Inevitable penalties were conceded and Cook, with his inimitable tripod-like style, struck a further two to reduce the deficit to 9-17 at the break.
“Although we scored two early tries,” said Middleton, “we didn’t deliver a strong enough performance or win enough collisions. They were building momentum and we didn’t do enough to deal with that. The injuries played a part but they were better than us all over the park.”
Cook darted through the outside channel to power over near the uprights after 15 minutes of the second half, then added a penalty to put the Pirates ahead.
Bristol responded with a second score from Helu, leaving Jones a simple conversion.
But from then on, it was one-way traffic, with 26 unanswered points from the hosts. Prop Carl Rimmer crossed twice, and David Doherty and Grant Pointer also touched down for the Pirates. Cook was immaculate with the boot apart from his attempt to convert Rimmer’s second score, which struck the left upright.
Back to the Tyne for a minute — the reason that the fog is still in evidence, is that the only other club who believe they can persuade the RFU and Premiership Rugby that they can meet the criteria — are also strongly placed to get there.
On Friday night London Welsh notched a 3-13 win at Goldington Road and will start with a ten-point lead at the Old Deer Park on Sunday (3.00pm).
The Blues were the division’s top points scorers after the regular season, but a massive downpour shortly before kick-off nullified the threat of their talented backs.
Following a break by Joe Ajuwa, Seb Jewell — who had replaced Gordon Ross — found Hudson Tonga’uiha who went over in the corner. Alex Davies added the extras and was on target from two penalties to give the Exiles a 0-13 interval lead.
They were unable to add to this in the second period, but managed to withstand a spirited Bedford fight back. However, the Blues were only able to register a James Pritchard penalty in the 63rd minute and will not be relishing the return leg as much as the Exiles.
So, by this time next week, we will know who will contest the final. Less likely, however, is whether we will know if they will have access to rugby’s top table.