It’s been two years since Bristol Rugby Club moved lock, stock and barrel to Ashton Gate, leaving the Memorial Ground where they had played since 1921. In 2012, the club was bought by Bristol City owner Steve Lansdown, although it was later revealed he had been propping the club up financially since 2008.
The move to Ashton Gate was surely always a question of when. I felt a modicum of sympathy with the rugby club. They were playing at a ground they used to own until they went bust and it was snapped up by Bristol Rovers who were now their landlords, landlords who didn’t really want them there at all. I am not a huge rugby union fan, but I like to watch the odd game and the prospect of seeing top flight union in Bristol greatly appealed. Not anymore.
Bristol Rugby has come into the Lansdown sporting portfolio, Bristol Sport. Worse, it has become part of the Bristol Sport brand and the core of the brand is Bristol City Football Club. I didn’t mind seeing a rugby game at Ashton Gate if what I appeared to be watching was a rugby club in its own right, but no one can really say that it is nowadays. The City part of the brand, certainly in terms of the shirts, is part of the rugby brand too. Call me narrow-minded, but if I went to Ashton Gate now, it would feel like I was going to support Bristol City. I can’t do that. So when Bristol were humiliated today at Wasps by 70-22, I wasn’t that sorry and I was not at all bothered. It didn’t go as far as schadenfreude where I actively took pleasure from their defeat because part of me still wants Bristol teams to do well, though obviously not Bristol City. But Lansdown, always the businessman, the brand designer and the City man has made no effort to reach out to me or any other Gashead who might have been tempted to visit the Gate to see some rugby.
There have been no declarations that all are welcome at the rugby. It was never a Rovers/City thing, even when we, the Rovers moved in with the rugby club all those years ago because it was, still is, a rugby ground, but taking the whole caboodle down to BS3 has turned the rugby club into an offshoot of the football club, something that Lansdown has done by design, not accident. It is as if the rugby club never played in BS7 and to my eyes there is little acknowledgement or respect for Bristol’s history, of how the club came about and why it was reborn at a ground which was a memorial to dead Bristol rugby players. It’s not about the history: it’s about the money, it’s about the franchise, it’s about the brand.
The top flight of rugby union acts like a franchise anyway, with clubs moving from one ground to another, sometimes from one city to another with little concern for the fans who don’t seem to care anyway. London Irish moved to Reading, London Welsh moved to Oxford, Wasps moved from London via Wycombe to Coventry. Bristol moved to Bristol but they might as well have moved to Nottingham.
Mr Lansdown will have a lot more propping up to do of Bristol Rugby if today’s mauling by Wasps is anything to go by. If saying it serves him right sounds a little bit harsh, I just don’t care. You earn support and loyalty just like you earn respect. If Lansdown just expects support and loyalty he could be in for a taxing few years, if you know what I mean.