Bristol: how to avoid the drop

Date published: September 26 2016

The Premiership season may only be four weeks old, but it has proven a harsh lesson for recently promoted Bristol, who are currently rooted to the bottom of the table.

They are winless through four rounds of rugby and their sole point has come courtesy of a losing bonus point against Harlequins at the London Double Header in the tournament’s showpiece opener. Credit is due for that performance at Twickenham, where Bristol looked very at home back in the Premiership after a seven-year absence, but their fortunes have gone rapidly downhill since.

Heavy losses to Northampton Saints, Wasps and Exeter Chiefs have followed, with Wasps putting 70 points on the side from the south-west, and the challenges are not set to get any easier, with Saracens due to visit Ashton Gate on Friday.

Facing Saracens is an unenviable task at the best of times but facing them immediately after they lost their first game in six months? That’s definitely not recommended.

The club has not had a problem crossing the whitewash, with their ten tries scored placing them firmly in the middle of the Premiership pack, but their defence has been a very different story.

Conceding 21 tries is seven more than the next worst teams (Exeter and Worcester Warriors have 14) and gives an average of over five tries conceded per game, something which is unlikely to improve with the looming visit of Saracens. The fixture with Wasps skews the data somewhat but it is still a worrying trend for Andy Robinson and the rest of the Bristol coaching staff.

Putting aside the Harlequins game for a moment, Bristol have averaged just 32 percent possession in the three games that followed. Ball security and retaining possession has been a real issue for the club and it saw them have to defend for the vast majority of those three games.

The loss to Wasps saw them severely exposed but against both Exeter and Northampton the defence did keep its shape and organisation well, it was just the repeated opportunities for the opposition that caught Bristol out.

Tusi Pisi is an extremely skilful footballer at fly-half but doesn’t deliver the same control that the likes of Gareeth Steenson, Owen Farrell and Nick Evans do with such aplomb at Premiership level.

Tactical kicking headaches, overplaying with a backline unaccustomed to playing together and missed shots at goal have given opposition teams extra possession, not to mention preventing Bristol from exerting scoreboard pressure.

The attacking chips and grubbers have seen Bristol hand over possession, too, and seem at odds with the personnel that the club are currently utilising.

The centre pairing of Thretton Palamo and Will Hurrell is as big and powerful as any unit in the Premiership and more than capable of breaking the gain-line, keeping Bristol on the front foot and allowing them to recycle and use quick ball. Having them chase chips and grubbers seems a waste of their natural ability.

The signing of Jason Woodward from the Hurricanes should help ease the pressure on Pisi, with the versatile full-back handy with the boot – both tactically and going for goal – and he is more than capable of stepping into the back line as a second receiver and alleviating the playmaking burden on the Samoan. If he can help instil the attacking control that Bristol are currently lacking, it will give them a puncher’s chance this season.

The bad news for Bristol however is that their relegation rivals look particularly good this season, and have shown to be competitive with some of the bigger, more established teams in the top half of the table.

Worcester have yet to pick up a win but draws with both Gloucester and Sale have seen them separate themselves from Bristol at the bottom, and the club is yet to welcome back the dynamic trio of Chris Pennell, Francois Hougaard and Bryce Heem. The arrival of Hougaard last season saw them move out of the relegation battle and his return from Springbok duties could have a similar effect in this campaign.

Newcastle were pre-season relegation favourites for many, especially following a summer of recruitment that saw them miss out on big-name signings to other Premiership clubs. Dean Richards is a savvy operator, however, and after two wins and an agonisingly close loss to Leicester Tigers, Newcastle look like anything but relegation battlers at this point.

Some poor early season form has led to some putting Gloucester and Sale into this conversation and there is merit in those arguments, but on paper, both teams boast too much talent to continue this vein of poor form for an entire season. Of course, seasons don’t play out on paper and a couple of losses to teams below them could easily see them embroiled in a relegation scrap.

Realistically, however, Worcester look like the team Bristol will need to rein in if they are to ensure their Premiership survival. With the Warriors waiting to welcome back arguably their three most influential players, that will be no easy challenge for Robinson and his charges.

With the defence hurting from constant exposure, Bristol need to develop their offensive identity and formulate a plan of attack that can see them retain possession, go through the phases and allow the pressure to build.

To take a step forward, Bristol may need to first take a step back, implementing a very basic – and very safe – style of attack.

When more natural ballplayers like Callum Sheedy, Gavin Henson and Ben Mosses return from their respective injuries it may be worth re-evaluating, but as of right now, Bristol need to simplify.

Only the most optimistic of fans will be expecting a result against Saracens on Friday, but after that Bristol travel to Newcastle and then welcome Sale to Ashton Gate in their next two Premiership fixtures.

If Bristol can’t pick up at least one win against Newcastle and Sale, pressure will really begin to mount on the players and coaches, even with the majority of the season still to play.

It’s been a baptism of fire for Bristol so far on their return to the top tier of English rugby and the kitchen has got a lot hotter since they were last in the Premiership. 

by Alex Shaw