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Mark Hoskins


Posted Saturday, March 21st 2020

Past Encounters: Magic Morley stuns Glos

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

Gloucester 6-12 Bristol | Saturday, September 27th, 1980 | Kingsholm

All Bristol supporters know that victories at Gloucester are never lightly won. Kingsholm is one of the few true and enduring fortresses of the English club game, and away wins at the ground are events to be treasured. The match I am looking back at today was without question one of the most remarkable that Bristol have ever achieved in Gloucester, and it was most certainly an example of triumph over adversity.

The 1980-81 season was one of Bristol’s more disappointing campaigns. The team started well with early victories over Cardiff (a record margin of victory over their oldest rivals) and Newport, but Bristol’s form faded badly after Christmas, hitting rock bottom in March when Stroud won on the Memorial Ground against a side containing four England caps. Captain for the season was the great Alan Morley, the most prolific try-scorer in rugby history, and it did not help Bristol’s cause in 1980-81 when he was injured for much of the season and missed about half the games. However, Morley was most certainly fit to lead his side when Bristol visited Kingsholm on Saturday September 27th, and he emphatically left his mark on a memorable encounter.

Gloucester had not yet lost at home during the season, and Bristol had last won at the ground in 1976. The home side featured full back Peter Butler and scrum half Peter Kingston, both of whom had played for England. Four of the pack – prop Gordon Sargent, hooker and captain Steve Mills, second row Steve Boyle and No.8 John Orwin – would all play for their country in the future. Incidentally, Orwin, normally a second row, was selected out of position because Mike Teague, another future England cap, was unavailable. Perhaps the most interesting selection in home side was at centre where Paul Howell was picked to partner Richard Mogg.  Only a year earlier Howell had joined Bristol from Gloucester.  He had started 1979-80 as Bristol’s first choice scrum half, memorably outplaying Terry Holmes of Cardiff and Wales in a thrilling draw at the Arms Park. At the time he was widely touted as a future England scrum half, but things didn’t work out and now he was back at Gloucester, playing out of position.

Bristol’s side was a full strength one, with England flanker Mike Rafter in the pack alongside No.8 Bob Hesford and prop Austin Sheppard, both of whom would be capped before the season ended. Future England scrum half Richard Harding was also in the side, though as we shall see he wasn’t on the field for very long. The appointed referee, Derek Hudson of Manchester, was unable to get to the match as his car broke down at Stafford, so, in an unusual move for a local derby, a ‘home’ referee took charge. He was John Roberts of the Gloucestershire Society, who had actually been due to run the line at Matson’s game with Exeter!

With the first half just two minutes old, a Gloucester forward landed heavily on Richard Harding and he was forced to leave the field with damaged ribs.  In those days, two replacements were permitted for injured players during a match (no tactical substitutions!), and Bristol had brought a back, outside half Nigel Wright, and a forward, second row Peter Stiff. While a decision was being reached about who should go on, Bristol actually took a surprise lead when full back Phil Cue set up an unconverted try for Morley. Then, equally surprisingly, on to the field came Peter Stiff. He slotted into his normal lock position, with Steve Gorvett moving to flanker and flanker Peter Polledri taking over at scrum half.

The decision to move Polledri was a sensational gamble, as he had not played at scrum half since his school days at St Brendan’s. However, as he recalled in later years, “I was still very young and brave, or perhaps that should be naïve. I actually fancied having a go at scrum half. It wasn’t as if Peter Kingston was bigger than me.” Veteran prop Mike Fry was equally confident that Bristol had made the right call. As he later put it, “people didn’t realise he was so good at scrum half. He was the most talented of us all and he never lost his scrum half skills. And as for bringing on Peter Stiff, that beefed up the pack. He took some stopping.”

Following the shock of Bristol’s early score, Gloucester came back strongly. Boyle and his second row partner Adrian Turton dominated the lineouts, and Bristol were penned in their own 25 for the next 20 minutes. Flanker Paul Wood lost the ball as he crossed the Bristol line, but the only Gloucester points came from two Butler penalties. Then, at the end of the first quarter, Morley scored his second try following good work from Gorvett. Again the try was unconverted, but Bristol were back in front. As the half progressed, it became clear that Polledri was more than holding his own at scrum half. He tended to play like an extra back row forward, but this worked well. Only twice was he penalised for crooked feeds at the scrum, although the thousands of additional ‘referees’ amongst the home crowd felt he had got off lightly in this respect. Such was Polledri’s confidence that he even sold a dummy on his own line before kicking to touch. “That was me showing off,” he later admitted. “It was an act of instinct that came off.” Half time arrived with Bristol clinging to their 8-6 advantage.

There were further problems for Bristol at the start of the second half. Hesford was badly concussed, and although he remained on the field, he later confessed to the press that he recalled little of the game. Gloucester continued to claim plentiful possession, yet despite dangerous runs from Mogg and outside half Colyn Price, poor passing and handling frequently let them down. Rafter’s magnificent tackling often came to Bristol’s rescue, and the visitors’ backs remained willing to run the scraps of possession that came their way. Ten minutes into the half, a skilfully delayed pass from the presumably dazed Hesford gave Morley the space to scurry through to complete a memorable hat trick. The conversion attempt again went wide, but the score was now Peter Butler 6, Alan Morley 12.

Half an hour remained for Gloucester to claw back the lead, and needless to say they tried their hardest to do so. With ten minutes left, Price made his most effective break, and only a brilliant tackle from Fry prevented a try for Mills. It was the closest Gloucester came, and Bristol’s superb defence triumphed in a nail-biting conclusion.

Gloucester did not have to wait too long to extract revenge. The return fixture at the Memorial Ground in February saw Bristol very much out of sorts, and the visitors won a forgettable encounter 7-0. And sadly Bristol’s players and supporters did not have much time in which to bask in the glory of the dramatic Kingsholm victory. Bristol returned to home action the following Saturday and fell to a shock defeat against London Irish - a real anti-climax after the wonders of the previous weekend.  

Bristol: Tries: Morley (3)

Gloucester: Pen: Butler (2)

Bristol: P C Cue, A J G Morley (captain), A C Thomas, C J Williams, R S Carter, D P Sorrell, R M Harding (rep P J Stiff), M J Fry, K M Bogira, A Sheppard, N J C Pomphrey, S J Gorvett, P J J Polledri, M Rafter, R Hesford

Gloucester: P E Butler, R J Clewes, R R Mogg, P R Howell, P Conway, C Pryce, P Kingston, G A F Sargent, S G F Mills (captain), A Brooks, S B Boyle, A J Turton, V J Wooley, P Wood, J Orwin

Referee: J Roberts (Gloucestershire)