Unbeaten league leaders Bristol return to Greene King IPA Championship action at Ashton Gate on Saturday lunchtime when they take on struggling Rotherham Titans, kick-off 12.30pm, with the visitors without a win in their seven outings this season.
Tongan international Siale Piutau makes his long-awaited return from injury in a Bristol side that shows seven changes from the side that won 36-17 away to beat Jersey Reds last time out.
Mat Protheroe returns at full back. Callum Sheedy partners Andy Uren are the half-backs. Ross McMillan returns at hooker, Joe Batley is at lock and Jordan Crane recovers from a knee injury to start at No.8 and leads the side.
Head coach Pat Lam says that his Bristol squad are refreshed and ready to return to the key objective of the Championship after a one-week break and insists his players are all set for a jam-packed pre-Christmas schedule,
“We’re really looking forward to it,” said Lam, whose side have taken a bonus point from six of their seven games. “The weather forecast is good; it’s an early start because of the Test matches, it’s Remembrance weekend – so there’s a lot going on.
“We saw in the last round that Rotherham gave Ealing – and we know how good the Trailfinders are – a real fright. It’s the same as our approach to Jersey, in that we need to get our mind-set right this week – which we have – and prepare well.
“That’s the best chance we’ll have of success on the weekend. My experience of rugby in the northern hemisphere is that any team can beat any team on their day if they’re not prepared – and that’s the message we’ve said right through the competition.”
Titans’ recent history against Bristol has seen the South Yorkshire side lose out on the last ten occasions they have met, and you have to go back to October 2012 for Rotherham’s last victory; that being a 23-16 success at Clifton Lane.
However, Rotherham travel with a measure of confidence following their last run-out which saw them narrowly lose to second-placed side Ealing Trailfinders. Their performances have improved recently so will be confident of competing against the favourites.
The Titans make just one enforced change with Portuguese international Francisco Vieira coming in for the injured Will Porter who injured his leg while representing his parent club Wasps last week in the Anglo-Welsh Cup defeat to Newcastle Falcons.
Titans’ head coach Andy Key, who spent over two decades at Leicester Tigers as a player and coach, said: “We were pleased with our performance last time out against Ealing; now it’s about trying to put consistent performances back to back.
“I think we have started to do that; the last three weeks against Connacht A, Richmond and Ealing Trailfinders has shown us that the side is starting to grow and they are building in confidence.
“Saturday’s match against Bristol is a great challenge, and it’s a challenge the boys are eager to take on. We understand where Bristol are and what they’re trying to do, but at the same time we are not going to fear them, but we do respect them.
“They know how to play and are well-organised, in Pat Lam it’s plain to be seen what he did with Connacht, and you can see what he’s trying to do with Bristol already. Their sights are firmly on getting promotion and getting back into the Premiership.
“They’re a side who like to play and score lots of tries; so we’re under no illusions as to the task in hand. But having watched them closely, we understand how they play; we are very excited, and we believe we can go there and give a good account of ourselves.”
Bristol (home v Rotherham Titans, Sat, 12.30pm): Mat Protheroe; Luke Morahan, Siale Piutau, Tusi Pisi, Tom Varndell; Callum Sheedy, Andy Uren; Soane Tonga’uiha, Ross McMillan, Nicky Thomas, Joe Joyce, Joe Batley, Sam Jeffries, Dan Thomas, Jordan Crane (capt). Reps: Jason Harris-Wright, Jack O’Connell, Gaston Cortes, Steven Luatua, Rhodri Williams, Ian Madigan, Jack Tovey.
Rotherham Titans: Will Thomas; Drew Cheshire, Yiannis Loizias, Luke Peters, Jake Henry; Caolan Ryan, Francisco Vieira; Toby Williams, Luke Cole, Matt Shields, Rob Louw, Byron Hodge, Adam Peters, Tom Calladine (capt.), Tom Burns. Reps; Charlie Maddison, Tom Williams, Brandon Palmer, Dan Grange, Ifereimi Boladau, Rhodri Davies, Lee Millar.
Read the match report and reaction from correspondent John Harding in Sunday’s Independent