Bath faces chilly Bristol reception

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So much for peace and goodwill. Both are likely to be lacking on Wednesday evening at Ashton Gate when Bristol play Bath in the Guinness Premiership.

Like all local rivalries, this one draws heavily on collective memories – none more vivid than their last meeting at Ashton Gate, home of Bristol City Football Club, in the spring of 2003. A 21,500 capacity crowd already guaranteed on Wednesday was the only similarity. Both clubs were beset by uncertainty and fear of either an unwanted merger or relegation. Bristol won but went down anyway a week later.

Three and a half years later, they are not only back in the Premiership but also led it going into Friday night’s match at Leicester.

If rugby had had leagues as long as football has, this would be no novelty –
Bristol would have as many championships as Manchester United. But league rugby since the late 1980s has
coincided with decline that twice saw the club relegated, each time close to financial collapse.

Last season’s return to the top flight saw them survive but offer few hints of this season’s prosperity. Coach Richard Hill, an expert manager of expectation, admits he is pleasantly surprised to be top. “I told the board that it was reasonable to hope we would finish between fifth and eighth and that is still our objective,” he says.

Hill is not surprised, though, that the team began well after he subjected his players to unusual pre-
season training. “We went back to what you might call farming skills to build up strength – lifting and carrying things like big tractor tyres, working with wheelbarrows and sledgehammers. It was very different to lifting in the gym.

“Then when we went to camp in France we played full contact 10-a-side matches with no padding and, by a miracle, only lost one player, Nathan Budgett, injured. It was a risk and, if we’d lost our first match to Worcester, players might have said I’d worked them too hard. Instead we won by 46 points.”

He also points to continuity – there were only three newcomers to the team – a point underlined by skipper Matt Salter, who says: “You can’t overestimate the value of playing with people whose play you know well.”

An extra dimension was also introduced by sessions on attack with a French coach – whom Hill declines to name – whose benefit
can be seen in the succession of try-scoring bonus points accumulated by a team that struggled to score last season.

Two players who have been particularly outstanding are England’s newly capped scrum-half, Shaun Perry, and loose forward Dan Ward-Smith. “Like Shaun, he’s [Ward-Smith’s] got that X factor that marks a player out,” says Hill. “He’s a superb athlete who can run like a three-quarter, has great hands and huge strength.”

For veteran prop Dave Hilton, who grew up close to Ashton Gate and supported City as a child, playing there will have a special significance. “It’ll be loud, passionate and with an electric atmosphere. If you can’t respond to that, you shouldn’t be out there at all,” he says.

But he adds: “Hilly is very good at taking the excitement out of it, keeping us calm and focused on our performance.”

One factor the coach, a former England captain with a serious prospect of one day guiding his country from the bench, does not mention is his own cool head, which prevents his getting carried away. While pointing to differences in playing style, he is well aware that a year ago Worcester, also in their second season after promotion, were almost as well placed at this point only to fall away badly.

A week that brackets this derby clash with visits to Leicester and champions Sale challenges Bristol’s current status as never before. Lose all three matches and ending the season between fifth and eighth suddenly looks about right. Win a couple and even the wary Hill may have to recast his objectives upwards.

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