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Championship Coach Close-up: Liam Middleton

26 January 2012

  • Bristol head coach remains on solid ground
  • Fitness cricual to club's run of form
Coaches Close-up: Liam Middleton

Photo: RFU Archive

Having taken over the reigns as head of coach in summer 2010, Zimbabwean Liam Middleton has breathed a new lease of life into the former Premiership side following a forgettable season which saw the West Country team finish 8th.

This season, despite having guaranteed their position in the promotional play-offs weeks ago, Middleton isn’t thinking about the possibility of life in the top tier, stating that the future of the club is based on creating the right culture now.

Q. You took over a Bristol squad with presumably low confidence after that loss to Exeter in 2010 and an 8th place league finish the following year. What have been the biggest factors in turning this team around to now, top of the RFU Championship?

We are obviously in a good position, but I haven’t put any emphasis or attention on being top of the league, we have focused more on trying to develop our culture and building the right type of game for us.

There are a number of factors as to why we find ourselves in a strong position at this time. We recruited well during the summer, with a focus on good individuals as much as good performers.

We have encouraged a values-based culture, and that has created a close-knit team ethic and, in turn, influenced the ‘Bristol Fashion’ style of rugby that we are trying to promote.

Q. Bristol were criticised last year for not lasting the full 80 minutes. How much has fitness been a part of this team’s revival?

Fitness is a pillar of our approach to the game, we have a large capacity and a real appetite for work and this has helped to build our fitness levels. Our conditioning staff do an excellent job in delivering a grueling pre-season program, but we are also very scientific in their approach. Ultimately, this is underpinned by our work ethic.

Our players are getting stronger and faster as we look to build towards the end-of-season play-offs.

Q. The club have banned the “P” word (promotion) this season. Why is that?

This could be considered the trickiest competition in world rugby to win. For us, promotion is a distant thought and is not discussed in our team room. I have read a lot of news from the Championship where coaches and players from clubs talk about being in the Premiership.

Our goal this season is to build a culture that creates an identity at Bristol. We want to prepare well for every game, setting first class standards in everything that we do, we haven’t spoken about anything else. We’re a very ambitious group of people, and our goal is to achieve what we have set out above.

Q. You recently announced the signing of Henry Vanderglas. With the transfer window closing this week, can we expect to hear some more signing news?

I’m really pleased to have added Henry to the squad. I followed his progress for several years on the World Sevens Series and he’s got plenty of Super Rugby experience with the Brumbies.

We brought in Luke Eves and Matthew Jones on permanent deals in the week building up to the transfer deadline, while Bath prop Mark Lilley has signed on a dual-registration agreement to give us some options in the front row.

The most important thing with any player we recruit is to ensure that they contribute to our culture and their characters are well suited to our environment

Q. Bristol have recorded some huge crowds this season at The Mememorial Stadium. How much of a difference does it make to the squad to have 7,000 supporters cheering them on?

It makes a huge difference to the players. You only have to look at our form at the Memorial Stadium to see that the supporters have inspired the team onto victory on more than one occasion.

Rugby is an entertainment sport, and I believe the Bristol supporters connect with what we are about and the kind of rugby we want to play. We express ourselves on the field, and all we ask of the players is to be true to Bristol Fashion.

Q. Finally, Bristol have a tough test ahead this weekend, with Rotherham travelling to the West Country. After your loss to Welsh two weeks ago, how important is it to get a win and maintain that unbeaten home record?

We learnt some lessons about ourselves at Old Deer Park and it’s sharpened our focus for the remainder of the campaign. As a team, we will stick to our values and our identity about how we play the game.

Rotherham inflicted our heaviest defeat of the season in October – a 44-6 defeat at Clifton Lane. No team have beaten us home and away this season and one of our goals is to ensure that this doesn’t happen.

I feel as though we have improved as a team since then, but I am still expecting Sunday’s match to be one of our toughest contests to date.