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Mark Hoskins

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Posted Thursday, March 19th 2020

Past Encounters: Nicholls downs Bath at The Rec

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

Bath 6-32 Bristol | Wednesday April 7th 1971 | The Rec


Bristol’s Annual Report described 1970-71 as “a somewhat mixed season.” Despite possessing an array of top quality players, and despite the passionate captaincy of Dave Rollitt and the revolutionary coaching of Peter Colston, 19 matches were lost. This represented the highest number of defeats since 1951-52, and there was often more than a little uncertainty about the club’s performances. On the plus side, there were memorable victories against Cardiff and Newport, along with an entertaining Easter Monday success against Northampton, but there were numerous disappointments along the way.

One of the season’s earlier defeats was a 16-15 home loss against Bath, courtesy of a controversial last-minute try, and when the clubs met again at the Rec in April, the hosts must have fancied their chances of completing a prized double. Bristol came into the game having lost three of their four previous games, while Bath had defeated Newport only four days previously.

A Wednesday evening in April was an unusual date for a Bristol versus Bath game. Traditionally the clubs met in mid-October and early March, but the fixture’s original date of March 6th clashed with Gloucestershire’s County Championship final with Surrey at Gloucester. Numerous Bristol players were involved in this game, so the local derby was rearranged.

The Bristol side which took the field at the Rec was an unusual one in that the three-quarter line consisted entirely of wingers. The men who actually played on the wing were Dave Tyler and Mike Collins, the latter making his 300th first team appearance; in the centre were young Alan Morley, an England and Lions wing of the future, and Ken Plummer, who had already been capped once by England on the wing. Morley was to play occasional games at centre throughout his career, but in Plummer’s case this was very much an experimental selection. The visitors’ pack included three internationals in Rollitt, second row Dave Watt and No.8 Charlie Hannaford.

Bath had one major selection problem going into the game, with regular outside half Geoff Phillips being unavailable due to business commitments. In his place the Bath selectors picked Tom Martland, a versatile player who had featured at centre, back row and full back, but never in the number ten shirt. In the event, the choice was not a happy one, as Martland and his halfback partner Bob Ascott did not gel as a pair and made a host of mistakes between them. Two England players were in the Bath side – winger Peter Glover and No.8 David Gay, while the pack also featured second row Bob Orledge, who was to join Bristol the following season.

Bristol started the game at a rate of knots, with Plummer almost crossing for a try inside the opening 30 seconds. They took the lead after two minutes when outside half Tony Nicholls kicked a 35-yard penalty. Then, in what Chris Ducker’s Evening Post report described as “a points-hungry opening 22 minutes,” Tyler and Plummer scored tries for Bristol and Nicholls landed a conversion and another penalty. Bath replied with two penalties from flanker Roger Walkey, so at the end of this frantic rush of points, Bristol led 14-6. There was no further score in the first half, and the match settled down into a far more even contest.   

Things remained much the same for the bulk of the second half, with the Bath pack appearing to get on top. In Chris Ducker’s words, Bristol scrum half David Perkins “battled heroically” during this difficult phase of the game, while the visitors were helped by a number of handling errors from Bath centres Graham Steer and John Donovan. There was also a bizarre hold-up to the game when a young boy who had got too near the touchline got knocked over when he collided with a touch judge. Referee Ernie Lewis reacted sternly, insisting that the game would not continue unless the crowd kept well back. Then, with just 13 minutes remaining, the floodgates opened again and Bristol ran in four more tries. Nicholls began the fun by crossing the line in the left corner and adding an excellent touchline conversion. Then Plummer created an opening for Collins, who celebrated his milestone in appropriate fashion with a try. Morley got the next score, and in the final minute Bristol scored what Ducker described as “the try of the season.”

The “busy and constructive” Perkins began the move with a clever blindside break from a scrum inside his own half. Flanker Dave Phillips and second row Mike McKenzie carried the move on, and a ruck was formed on the Bath 25. Perkins provided rapid service for Nicholls, who passed to Hannaford, and the No.8 shrugged off two defenders in a glorious run to the line. Two more Nicholls conversions meant that Bristol had scored 18 points in next to no time, and a fairly close game had been transformed into a rout.  

Seventeen points from Nicholls, together with the outside half’s “urgency and determination,” were sufficient to earn him the Evening Post’s Man of the Match accolade, but there was plenty of praise for the entire team in Chris Ducker’s report. “Glorious Bristol swept aside the anxieties of a troubled season with an inspired annihilation of Bath,” he wrote. Rollitt and Hannaford were “outstanding,” while Watt was supreme in the lineouts. Rollitt himself was elated after the game, and had this to say about his team’s efforts: “At last we managed to overcome the psychological barriers that seem to have held us up so many times this season. We really believed in ourselves tonight.”

It goes without saying that Bath skipper Peter Heindorff was less impressed, telling the Post that this was his side’s “worst game” of the season. “We completely forgot the basic skills of the game and were deservedly punished,” he said.

As things turned out, the Bristol performance that evening proved to be a foretaste of what was in store for the club’s supporters the following season. With Tony Nicholls as captain the team scaled new heights, losing just seven games, scoring over 1,000 points and winning the Sunday Telegraph English and English/Welsh Merit Tables. Sadly, Mike Collins was not to be part of this success. The former Bristol Saracens winger, who died earlier this year, left the city for business reasons and played the remainder of his senior rugby for Rosslyn Park. Indeed, he was to play against his old club the following season, experiencing at first hand the brilliance of a very special squad of Bristol players. 

Bristol: Tries: Tyler, Plummer, Morley, Collins, Nicholls, Hannaford. Con: Nicholls (4). Pen: Nicholls (2)

Bath: Pen: Walkey (2)

Bristol: C J Williams, D G Tyler, K C Plummer, A J G Morley, M R Collins, A H Nicholls, J D Perkins, A J Rogers, M G Horler, M J Fry, D E J Watt, M R McKenzie, D A Phillips, D M Rollitt (captain), R C Hannaford

Bath: J S Waterman, P B Glover, G Steer, J R Donovan, I F Duckworth, T D Martland, R Ascott, J M Meddick, A G Parfitt, N K Carter, P B H Heindorff (captain), R J Orledge, R J Walkey, P R Hall, D J Gay    

Referee: E M Lewis (WRU)