It comes as a surprise to be reminded that Paul Hull is not by origin a Bristolian. His return to Bristol as an assistant coach after two years with London Irish looks - along with the restoration to the Premiership and Sunday’s opening-weekend resumption of derby matches against Bath - like a restoration of the natural order.
Yet the player who epitomised this locally-rooted club in more than a decade as a player, followed by a successful spell as academy coach, is in fact London-born and Surrey-bred - lineage that made him an exception at the club he joined in the late 1980s :”It was a team of Bristolians, who’d all come through the Bristol Combination and had always seen playing for Bristol as their goal. I’d played England under-19s and was in the RAF. I’d had trials at Bath and Wasps, but this felt like my club.”
He’d have won more medals if he’d gone to Bath or Wasps and probably added to the four England caps that were a miserably poor return on his abilities as a versatile back - he was also unlucky that his best years came a little before the appointment of Clive Woodward, who would have appreciated both his skill and his intelligence.
The irony is that the arrival of this gifted outsider also pointed up underlying reasons for a decline that parallels Yorkshire’s in cricket. Mismanagement played its part in both , but there were wider forces at work. When most recruitment to senior clubs was local, Bristol’s position at the apex of the strongest junior set-up in England was a huge in-built advantage. As it steadily became broader ranging - allowing a talented youngster like Hull a choice of three clubs spread over more than 100 miles - that edge, like Yorkshire’s from its cricket leagues, steadily diminished.
Hull’s previous 17 seasons at the Memorial Ground saw two relegations, a spell in receivership during which Bristol Rovers FC took ownership of the ground and the threat either of decamping to Oxford or merger with Bath. He might have become chief coach after the second relegation two seasons ago, but instead went to London Irish :”I needed to get out of my comfort zone here and expand my horizons”, he says. It was no surprise though this summer when he returned to a club restored in status and spirit:”There’s a Board of Directors who are Bristol people, committed to the club and the city, and a great coaching team.”
His role in what even head coach Richard Hill, realistic to the point of pessimism, expects to be a season-long struggle against relegation, will be vital. Nobody knows better than John Brain, whose Worcester team survived their first Premiership season last year, what it takes to stay up. He says :”You have to invest in backroom staff - fitness and conditioning are vital, as is analysis. You have to be able to spot the small details that make the difference”.
Hull was Irish’s analyst. Hill says :”He knows the Premiership inside out and he was involved in a relegation dogfight last season, so his is an absolutely vital role”. From last season’s experience, Hull draws the moral “Don’t panic. Worcester got off to a slow start last season and took a while to settle at the top level, but they went on doing the right things and started getting results. A year earlier Rotherham panicked, sacked the coaching team, changed a lot of players and fell apart.”
Not panicking is easier said than done. Brain had the reassurance of knowing after his first two matches - narrow defeats by Newcastle and Saracens - that his team could at least compete at Premiership level, plus the advantage that Harlequins and Northampton also had poor starts. Hill says :”We’ve got to do better than Worcester. They won one out of nine, but had company at the bottom. We can’t count on that. If we only win one out of nine it’ll be ‘Goodbye Bristol’.” Starting against Bath, combining the pressures of a local derby with formidable opposition is, he implies, no great help.
Recruitment also matters. Brain says :”There’s no room at all for sentiment. You have to take some ruthless decisions with the players who took you up, then get to have a success rate of about 80 per cent with those you bring in.”
Bristol have 17 new signings including former British Lion Mark Regan - a Bristolian Hill hails as “serious about his rugby, passionate about Bristol, he’ll be very important to us” - Welsh veterans Gareth Llewellyn and Geraint Lewis and Samoa’s Brian Lima. Former Wasps centre Mark Denney gave up a Heineken Cup place with Castres to return to the club where he played his first senior rugby as a student. He says :”There’s a good set-up here and a core of players who’ve been together for a couple of seasons and brought them up”. The habits he sees as essential to Wasps’ success - ”detailed preparation and a never-say-die attitude” - he found lacking at Castres, but will be essential to survival.
So too will the local passion of a player like fellow-threequarter Sean Marsden, a product of Clifton Juniors. Marsden is qualified by birth for Scotland and a decent season might bring him to the notice of selectors hardly spoilt for talent, but he says:”All I’m concerned about is winning my place with Bristol, getting stuck into the season and doing the best we possibly can. I can’t wait.”
Nor, doubtless, can the 11,000 plus fans who will pack the Memorial Ground to its seams and rafters on Sunday as one of English rugby’s truly great clubs reclaims its historic status.