Bristol Rugby: A tale of two halves

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After 7 years of play-off failures and disappointment, Bristol Rugby finally won promotion back to the Aviva Premiership in 2016 with a nail biting 60-47 aggregate play-off win over Doncaster Knights. The manner of the promotion led to a renewed sense of optimism amongst Bristol’s fan base as the club came closer to the opening game’s success against seasoned top-tier side Harlequins.

A reasonably successful summer led to several high profile players joining, such as Tusi Pisi, a Samoan international centre and Rhodri Williams, a Welsh international scrum-half. Further signings included Martin Roberts, who was also once part of the Wales team, plus Jordan Crane, a former regular for Leicester Tigers. One signing which almost went unnoticed was that of centre Will Hurrell, who had terrorised the Bristol backs with his hard running during the play off final, scoring a try in each leg.

The Aviva Premiership trophy

Bristol’s first Premiership game came at Twickenham where 10,000 away fans witnessed a cruel, albeit close welcome to the division. Harlequins, the 2011-12 Premiership champions won 21-19 with tries from Tom Varndell and Ryan Edwards coming either side of Tusi Pisi scoring superbly in his first match for the side. Another debutant, Will Hurrell, was awarded Man of the Match by the BT Sport commentators. Despite having led at some stages of the game, Bristol were left to rue both poor refereeing decisions and bad discipline.

The first home game of the season came against another former title holder in Northampton Saints, who also boast two European Challenge Cup wins among various other impressive accolades. A relatively one sided game showed how far Bristol would have to improve in order to stay in the league.  Northampton won 32-10 with France back rower Louis Picamoles and Wales winger George North both starring. The defeat was followed a week later by a 47 point hammering at the hands of Wasps, with the Coventry based side running in ten tries – again showing how Bristol looked out of place when faced with the division’s elite. After the game some Bristol fans were left questioning why the club had so recently decided to give Andy Robinson, Bristol’s Director of Rugby, a new contract in the summer. Poor decision making and a lack of defensive structure saw Bristol rooted to the bottom of the Aviva Premiership table after three games.

Next up for Bristol were two home games, firstly in front of the BT Sport cameras at home to Exeter, who won comfortably 41-17 to continue Bristol’s winless start to the season. Then came Saracens, the Aviva Premiership and European Champions Cup winners from last season. Again, Bristol were destroyed with ease, Saracens running out 39-0 winners despite arguably not being at their best. After these games, Bristol’s ever-increasing winless streak led to further calls for Andy Robinson to be sacked.

The following match was away at Newcastle Falcons and Bristol turned in a much improved performance only to find themselves on the losing side again. Despite falling behind at half time 19-0, Bristol fought back superbly but some excellent defence from Falcons stopped a spirited comeback.  They succumbed 19-14, yet did pick up their second losing bonus point of the season. Next came a bit of a break from the Premiership season as Bristol hosted Cardiff Blues before travelling down to face Bath in the Challenge Cup. Despite being relieved of league duties for a couple of weeks, Bristol were still yet to find that elusive winning formula, losing 33-20 to the Blues before being beaten 22-6 in a low key derby at The Rec.

Having lost their first eight games of the season and only picking up two losing bonus points along the way, Bristol fans were understandably starting to vent their frustration on social media. Many asked for Andy Robinson to be sacked.  The board finally relented after a lacklustre 31-13 defeat at home to fellow strugglers Sale Sharks, which left Bristol worryingly adrift at the bottom of the table and looking like relegation certainties. Gavin Henson and skipper Jack Lam returned against the Sharks, only for both to go back off with injuries. Frankly, Bristol seemed to lack any game plan or cohesive defence as Sale waltzed through to score four easy tries.

So on the 7th of November, following on from a winless start to the season, Bristol fired Andy Robinson and replaced him with the academy head coach Mark Tainton whilst they looked for someone new to take over the reins.