MANY north of the Border may have sniffed when Andy Robinson took up a post with Bristol in the English Championship, but in a stirring five-try defeat of London Scottish, the enterprising coach and his side have given themselves a fighting chance of gaining promotion to the Aviva Premiership.
Bristol sit in fourth place in the table, just two points behind Leeds Carnegie with one game left to play – at Newcastle Falcons – while Bedford, just a spot back, have a game in hand as they all hunt an end-of-season play-off place.
“I still feel it will be tough for us to get qualification going to Newcastle where they haven’t been beaten this year,” Robinson said after the match, “but we’ll give it another good crack.”
“Today we were in control of the game. Today was ball in hand, lots of movement. The boys have responded well to it. If you watch most of the side I have coached we have tried to play. I watch rugby some days and it is just kick and rush and running into people, but it is about hitting spaces and great support play. It is fun to coach and it is fun to play in.”
Listening to Robinson you would be forgiven for thinking this one was played out on sun-bleached track.
Across a low background hum, both sides took to a dense and damp Richmond Athletic Ground unsure how to handle each other. Much of that may have been down to the feeling of familiarity shared by the squads, with former Bristol charge Mark Irish lining up alongside several of Robinson’s old players in Phil Godman and Jim Thompson, both of whom are buddies with Bristol prop Kyle Traynor. Of course, few know each other better than the Pennycook brothers, with both playing blindside on either side of the ball.
There was plenty of time to re-familiarise themselves with the feel of their friends’ hardest shot, though, as the conditions and a shared attacking mindset led to slips in play. The first shot at goal hinted at as much, as Scottish’s James Love missed a clean connection with the ball and instead found himself on the ground as his kick sailed under the bar.
For Bristol, the approach was cavalier. Safe in the knowledge that their driving maul would churn onwards, the forwards – marshalled loudly by the effervescent Ruki Tipuna at scrum-half – began to play with flourishes. Hinting at a style many could claim was Robinson-esque, Tipuna took the ball from one such trundle forward and found lock Mariano Sambucetti with a neat flick. The second-row had too much momentum to be halted and he scored the game’s first try.
Minutes later, breakaway James Merriman was in for Bristol’s second after Tipuna fed winger George Watkins off the back of another lineout. As Watkins careered at an angle, the openside had the easiest of tasks riding in his slipstream and finishing the play off.
Scottish did their best to match the visitors offload for offload but, at times, appeared skittish in the face of the West Country side’s dominance at the breakdown. As Sambucetti again shouldered his way into play, pinching ball from replacement hooker Harry Allan, Robinson bellowed for his player to make use of the ball in hand, a call they will be set to hear for all four years of the coach’s current contract.
On that occasion, they did not heed his words and the last significant incident of the first half saw Love slide through tacklers after running on to a floated Godman pass. He took his time, but, as the winger threaded a pass through dizzied defenders, Thompson was swept in for a comeback score.
The chill of half-time came too soon for the hosts, however, and, as play resumed, Bristol set their jaws and ran, storming to a Jonathan Goodridge try full of aggressive running and a sublime offload from Fautua Otto metres from the line.
Scottish gave a sharp riposte, with substitute Simon Whatling sliding on to an intelligent grubber from Godman, but Bristol simply pounded again. Goodridge earned a second off the back of his pack and as Otto scooped up a loose pass and galloped forward, Scottish could only flail while Merriman scored again.
Miles Mantella stormed in from his own ten-metre line, displaying the defiance that kept Scottish cranking hard, but it was the last act in a game that could have been dreamt up by Robinson weeks ago.