By P G Tips
November 14 2016
Will Bristol banish the blues when they visit Bath in Friday’s Premiership clash? The two cities are linked by a river, a county and a colour, but for the past 30 odd years it is the negative connotation of blue that Bristol have had to bear. Since the days of Jack Rowell the men at the mouth of the Avon have had to watch their neighbours rack up an impressive 18 trophies – including European triumph at both levels, while they have won nothing. In the professional era Bristol have been relegated three times to the Championship, most recently languishing there for 7 years, failing to get through the much criticised playoffs, despite winning the league stage in 5 of those. Much winning rugby was played in those years, but when it mattered they could only find a minor key and the resulting mood was consistently downbeat. The recent sacking of Andy Robinson only 3 months after being offered a new contract sounded a discordant note, yet the signs of recovery are already evident. While Bristol beat Sale last weekend to record their first win in the top flight for 8 years, Bath, overhauled and humbled, were suffering a rare defeat. A walloping at Parc y Scarlets is not ideal preparation for a derby fixture against a club fired by pride, renewed hope and desperation – so who will be singing the blues on Friday night?
The tried and trusted recipe for turning an under performing season round is “back to basics” and it is quite likely that interim DOR Mark Tainton will take that approach. That is not to say that sophistication will be absent, but the priorities will be possession, defence and territory. As we saw in the ECC fixture, Bristol can field a strong pack: they did well in drive and driving maul against Sale and have firmed up their maul defence. They are likely to base much of their attack around the newly arrived, burly junior All Black Jason Woodward who has Super 15 winning pedigree with Hurricanes. His direct running can give his forwards a target and he could become a talisman much in the way Peter Stringer did a few seasons ago at the Rec. If quick ball results, Bristol have dangerously pacy wings in Lemi & Varndell and Bath used to have an unfortunate history of taking late shocks from Bristol wings.
At full strength Bath would be expected to batter Bristol black and blue (and white), both literally and metaphorically. However, injuries and international callups have levelled the odds somewhat. If Bath are to prevail they will need a turnaround of their own from the depressed notes of their last twenty last week. Possession must be protected, penalties conceded only reluctantly and concentration kept throughout the piece. Above all, the senior players need to front up: Todd Blackadder owned up to tactical errors in substitution last Friday- he will expect the likes of Garvey, Banahan & co to set a similar tone of honesty and combative professionalism.
Even with many stars missing, Bath at home should be too strong, especially if Talupe Faletau is to get a runout at some stage, as rumoured. This is a derby which has traditionally been passionate, often prejudiced and even patronising, but seldom poisonous. There is though a bond of bragging banter between players and supporters of the two clubs. Bristol may have won last weekend, but Bath stand on 8 wins from 11 in all competitions, 6 from 7 in the Premiership. Bath will want to show that “out of shape” is the real Bristol fashion – if they play with the determination shown in their last Premiership appearance, they should. Expect Bristol’s mood to be muted, while Bath’s is trumpeted and triumphant by 10pm on Friday.
Auterac, Dunn, Palma-Newport, Ellis, Stooke, Garvey, G Mercer, Grant. Allinson, Priestland. Wilson Banahan, Brew, Williams. Atkins.
Replacements: Catt, Van Vuuren, Lahiff, Z Mercer, Faletau. W Homer, Bowden, Hastings,
Bristol: Tonga'uiha, Jones, Perenise, Evans, Sorenson, Lam, Koster, Crane. (Capt). Williams, Searle. Varndell, Tovey, Woodward, Lemi, Wallace.
Replacements: Hawkins, Cortes, Ford-Robinson, Phillips, Eadie. Cliff, Jarvis, Arscott,