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Mark Hoskins

Mark Hoskins writes

Posted Thursday, May 28th 2020

Past Encounters: Fry scores in victory over Coventry

Club Historian, Mark Hoskins takes a look back at a famous Bristol victory in our latest Past Encounters feature.

Coventry 6-14 Bristol | Saturday, January 12th, 1980 | Coundon Road

At the time Coventry were still one of the leading sides in England, although they were not quite the force they had been in the previous two decades. For many years Bristol played them just once, at the end of each season, but in 1977-78 a double fixture was introduced, and the second Saturday in January became the regular date for a meeting with the Midlands club.

The 1979-80 season was an excellent one for Bristol, and the final playing record showed 34 wins, four draws and just eleven defeats from the club’s 49 games.  Bristol scored over 1,000 points, and the club topped the South West Merit Table, a competition which was at that time the team’s only route to John Player Cup qualification. The major disappointment of the campaign came when Gosforth won at the Memorial Ground to knock Bristol out of that season’s John Player Cup, but on the plus side there were memorable wins over Bridgend, London Welsh and Leicester, as well as a mighty hammering of Bath at Easter. There was also a thrilling early season draw with Cardiff at the Arms Park. Just a week before the Coventry clash, Bristol had been in a different part of the Midlands, winning 14-7 at Bedford.

Bristol’s captain in 1979-80 was the remarkable Mike Fry. Arguably the greatest prop in the club’s history, he eventually played well over 400 first team matches, and during his two seasons of captaincy, of which this was his second, he never missed a match. In the pack with him at Coventry’s old Coundon Road ground were two future England players in prop Austin Sheppard and No.8 Bob Hesford, while veteran England winger Alan Morley was also in the side. Coventry, captained by winger Paul Knee, fielded only one England cap in second row Barry Ninnes, although exciting young outside half Huw Davies would soon gain senior England honours. Missing from their side were two other England players, centre Geoff Evans and full back Peter Rossborough. The home team had experienced a mixed season so far, winning twelve games, drawing two and losing the remaining eleven.

The first half of the game was a one-sided affair, with Bristol’s pack very much in command, although the visitors’ superiority was not obvious from the score. Second row Nick Lear was in commanding form in the lineouts, flanker Peter Polledri “buzzed in the loose,” to quote Chris Ducker’s Evening Post report, and hooker Kevin Bogira took four strikes against the head in the scrums. It was from a home scrum that Bristol took the lead after seven minutes; Hesford stole the ball from under-pressure scrum half Steve Thomas, and Bristol scrum half Paul Howell linked with Hesford to give Morley a try. But annoyingly for Bristol they could not build on their dominant performance, and Coventry took the lead with just about their only decent attack of the half. After 16 minutes their No.8 Simon Gregory caught a long lineout throw and powered over the line, with Thomas converting the try.

Fortunately for Bristol they did manage to sneak into a 7-6 lead eight minutes before the break when Howell just managed to land a 40 metre penalty via a post. The former Lydney and Gloucester scrum half was a thrilling player during his short time with Bristol, but he was never a regular kicker, and this was one of only four penalties he scored for Bristol. At this stage of the season Howell was a serious contender for a place in the England side, and national selector John Young watched him in this game. Sadly, he gave only a moderate display and the international opportunity passed him by. In his defence, he had been suffering from a bout of gastro-enteritis in the week preceding the game and came close to withdrawing from the match. He was penalised four times for a crooked feed, and Young left the ground before the end of the contest.  

Unfortunately for Coventry, they lost two of their pack in the second half, with Ninnes and flanker Steve Oliver both going off with injuries. One of their replacements was Paul Lander, normally a scrum half, who was forced to play in the back row. He was to spend the latter part of his senior rugby career at Bristol. The visitors too had injury problems, with Steve Gorvett coming on for Hesford, who departed with a head wound soon after the break.

As the second forty minutes progressed, Bristol began to get on the wrong side of referee Mr Head-Rapson. They conceded a host of penalties and that, combined with great resolve on the part of the Coventry side, prevented them from forging any further ahead. The home side actually came close to tries through Knee and his fellow winger Martin Clifford, but good defence from full back Phil Cue and centre John Watson, combined with excellent defensive kicking from outside half Clive John, prevented any scores.  Bristol still looked the likely winners, but there was no further scoring until ten minutes from the end of the match, despite two attempts at drop goals from Howell. Then on 70 minutes, after Bristol had won the ball at the back of a lineout, the forwards surged over the line and Fry touched down for a very timely try. It was his first score in 82 games, stretching back to a match at Falmouth in March 1978. The try more or less confirmed Bristol’s deserved victory, but just to make sure Gorvett landed a 45 metre injury time penalty. In the end, second half injury time added almost ten minutes to the match, but Bristol survived comfortably.

Chris Ducker’s Evening Post Man of the Match was Kevin Bogira for “another storming loose display, in addition to his powerful front row contribution.” Mike Fry’s view of the proceedings, as quoted in the Post was that “in the first half I thought we would wipe the floor with them because we were so superior in the scrum and lineout. But our rhythm was destroyed in the second half when we were penalised many times. The referee did not allow the game to flow properly after the break.”

Various Sunday papers sent reporters to this game, and one or two of them struggled with the name Gorvett – he was listed as both Corvett and Garvett the following morning. Barry Ninnes fared little better, featuring as Innes in one paper. Bristol’s overall strength at this time in their history can be judged by the fact that on the same afternoon Bristol United beat Blaenavon 65-0, with a side containing the likes of David Sorrell, Richard Harding, Peter Stiff and Alf Troughton, all of whom were first team regulars for long periods. Winger John Lane scored five tries in this match. 

The 1979-80 season was certainly a memorable one for Mike Fry. Two months before the Coventry game he made a scandalously belated representative appearance for the South & South West Counties against the All Blacks at Exeter. The tourists won 16-0, but Fry memorably remarked that he had faced harder opponents playing club games with Bristol in Wales! At the end of the following season he returned to Coundon Road, where Coventry ruined his final senior appearance by beating Bristol 14-4. Thereafter he enjoyed several successful years with Old Reds. Mike Fry has remained a staunch Bristol supporter ever since.

Bristol: Tries: Morley, Fry, Pen: Howell, Gorvett

Coventry: Try: Gregory, Con: Thomas

Bristol: P C Cue, A J G Morley, J Watson, J A J Kelly, R S Carter, I C John, P R Howell, M J Fry (captain), K M Bogira, A Sheppard, N J C Pomphrey, N R Lear, P J J Polledri, M L Baker, R Hesford (rep S J Gorvett 47)

Coventry: S Hall, P F Knee (captain), B Bailey, M Woodhead, M J Clifford, G H Davies, S J Thomas, F Melvin, A Farrington, S P Wilkes, B F Ninnes (R Cardwell 40), S Brown, S Oliver (P Lander 45), R Sadler, S Gregory

Referee: B Head-Rapson (Notts, Lincs & Derby)  


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