Rotherham must be sick and tired of the sight of Bristol who have now beaten the Titans five times in all competitions this season.
By winning both the semi final play-off games against Rotherham, but not by the margin that should be expected of a club with a budget of more than £2 million, Bristol go through to the final,
But after seeing how competitive the Titans were at the Memorial Stadium and then at Abbeydale, Bristol’s senior managers, ex-England and Scotland coach Andy Robinson and Sean Holley, have the utmost respect for their opponents.
Make no mistake, at periods in both matches, Rotherham’s passion, team spirit, total commitment and flair in attack, exemplified by the efforts of centre Jack Roberts, made Bristol look ordinary.
The West Country club from a city which lives and breathes rugby union were put under severe pressure in two excellent contests from which Rotherham emerged with great credit in attack and defence.
The highlight of the battle at Abbeydale,watched by a crowd of more than 3,000, came in the 38th minute when Irish winger Michael Keating scored in the corner to put Rotherham in front by 8-3 and by 22-20 overall.
Keating’s 11th try in the Championship was created by a thrilling and skilful passage of play that involved flanker Jack Preece.
Unfortunately, Rotherham, who finished the first half attacking Bristol’s line, could not break through again. Their opponents survived the pressure, regrouped and, despite being down to 14 men after a yellow card, went on to prosper.
The Titans, although they were second best in the scrums, a weakness, where they conceded too many penalties, were the better and more imaginative side in the opening half.
However, their hopes of copying the Millers by reaching a final crashed in the second half as Bristol kept calm, dominated possession and territory through their pack and exploited errors. The match was won by the accurate goalkicking of Bristol fly-half Nicky Robinson who added to his first-half penalty by striking another four, on 61, 73, 80 and 85 minutes.
The Welshman put over 17 points because he also converted Bristol’s only try on 50 minutes by centre Ben Mosses whose score early in the second half sparked Bristol’s revival.
Mosses’ try was the first and only time that Rotherham’s robust and sharp defending failed. No-one typified Rotherham’s resolve more than number eight Alfie To’oala who blasted his way into every Bristol player who was in his way.
How Bristol prop James Hall survived one tackle by To’oala is best left to the Bristol physio and doctor to explain such was the force of the impact.
The Samoan also played his role in containing the threat of Ryan Jones, capped 75 times by Wales. On his Bristol debut, the former Wales skipper and British Lion revealed all his experience, but so solid was Rotherham’s defence that Jones was restricted and not once did he go on the rampage.
In his last game for Rotherham before he starts pre-season training with Premiership club Newcastle Falcons, fly-half Juan Pablo Socino,for once, did not perform to his normal high standards. He missed two penalties and a conversion and some of his re-starts flew straight out of play.
Socino’s mistakes, though, were not the reason why the Titans failed to reach the final. In the first leg, they let in 17 points because of two yellow cards, and in the second too many kickable penalties were concededas Bristol’s forwards controlled events in the second 40 minutes at Abbeydale.
Rotherham now have a much-needed holiday for five weeks before reporting back for pre-season training towards the end of next month.
Several major players are leaving, among them Socino, scrum-half Charlie Mulchrone and forwards Dan Sanderson, Ben Sowrey and Colin Quigley. However, 20 players have been retained and, considering the quality of the recruits such as Ulstermen Adam Macklin(prop) and James McKinney(fly half),the future at Clifton Lane under coach Lee Blackett is promising.
“I think we are going to be a better side next year,” said Irish full-back Sean Scanlon.
“Everyone has bought into the way Lee wants to play. I have loved this season, the best of my career. We want to run the ball from everywhere and that’s what we have done.
“We had so much confidence in our ability and we have achieved for more than everyone expected.
“But Rotherham have to improve. If you look at this game, when Bristol were down to 14 men they scored seven points, and then we made two mistakes and compounded that with scrum penalties. At this level you can’t do that and we were punished.”
Rotherham’s attractive style of playing - 86 tries in the Championship - has delighted their fans, threatened opponents and brought pride to the town, rather like the footballing Millers.
Said Titans chairman Nick Cragg: “I’m immensely proud. The coach and the backroom staff have revolutionised the way we play.
“This has been our best season for enjoyment and to see rugby played expansively is to understand what a beautiful game it can be,”
“Bristol are a powerful side and better resourced. We have nothing to reproach ourselves about and we didn’t leave much out there.
“At one point, I thought we would have a re-run of David and Goliath, but sadly it wasn’t to be.
“We have some exciting players coming in.
“Rotherham find these nuggets, develop them and then they move on because they are in the shop window.
“But our policy also means that we can attract other players as well.”
Rotherham may well be upset in defeat, but they now have the stability required to improve on this successful season and prove again in the next Championship campaign that they are a team to be feared.
Titans: Scanlon, Broadley, Gill, Roberts, Keating, Socino, Mulchrone, Williams, Cruse, Quigley, Holmes, Thomas-Brown, Rieder, Preece, To’oala. Replacements: Birch, Hislop, Tampin, Sanderson, Davies, White, Murphy.
Scorers:Try: Keating; Penalties: Socino 2.
Referee: Matt Carley.