Down Bristol way, they reckon they live in the biggest rugby city in the world. Now they have some tangible evidence to complement all that culture for the sport, all those community clubs and players.
In a stadium far more modest than planned in Aix-en-Provence, just a few miles from the original venue of the Stade Vélodrome in Marseille, Bristol claimed their first European trophy.
A brilliant Max Malins try on the hour broke the deadlock in the Challenge Cup final. Against the might of local Toulon, themselves regulars on the European honours board, Bristol have served notice of their intention to establish themselves as a rugby power to take seriously.
“I said before the game, ‘Let’s go and celebrate who we are and what that means,’” Pat Lam, Bristol’s director of rugby, said. “The way we play the game, the way our culture is, our love for each other. Let’s focus on the joy.”
That joy was very much back on the faces of the Bears, after their humiliating defeat by Wasps in last weekend’s Premiership semi-final. Six penalties from the boot of Callum Sheedy supplemented Bristol’s two wonderful tries. Toulon were well beaten. It feels weird just to write it, so contrasting the fortunes of both clubs’ recent history.
But there is little surreal about the surreal any more. As Bristol prepared, the news broke that this final may not represent the end of this weirdest of seasons after all.
The memory of that bracing experience against Wasps was still smarting, only for the suggestion to emerge that it may not have been a terminal defeat. Wasps have their own outbreak of Covid to contend with, and if they cannot contain it Bristol will step up to face Exeter next weekend in the Premiership final.
To win a first European title is one thing; to become the first losing-semi-finalist champions in the history of sport would be another again. They will not know until Wednesday whether they will be required, so even without a global lockdown there could be no partying in Aix-en-Provence.
The authority of this win is all the more impressive given the missing personnel. Charles Piutau and Nathan Hughes are internationals any team would covet and both were out through injury. Then, captain Steven Luatua withdrew, so he could attend the birth of his daughter, who arrived just as Bristol were warming up.
The good vibes kicked in immediately. From the kick-off, no less, Semi Radradra exchanged passes with Alapati Leiua to burst out of the 22 and send Harry Randall streaking clear from just over halfway – 15 seconds gone. A couple of minutes later, Sheedy landed the first of his penalties to earn Bristol a 10-0 lead. Easy.
Toulon are as massive a team as they have ever been but they offered little. They owed their only try to a mix-up in Bristol’s midfield, which allowed Bryce Heem to capitalise. That they managed to turn round six points up, Louis Carbonel slotting three penalties in the second quarter, was almost inexplicable.
Bristol might have had two further tries in that half alone. Joe Joyce seemed to have finished a beautiful, sweeping team score in the corner just shy of the half-hour, but the TMO decreed the last pass forward. It was close. A few minutes earlier, Harry Thacker had fumbled as he tried to touch down.
The mighty Ben Earl was to the fore as Bristol wrestled that deficit back, Sheedy winning the third-quarter duel of the fly-halves three penalties to one. Sheedy has had to fight for his place, despite his recent call-up to the Wales squad, with Malins – like Earl, a visitor from Saracens – but the two were able to showcase their respective wares for that crucial try on the hour.
Sheedy’s lovely kick to the corner pinned Toulon in their own 22. When the Frenchmen overthrew the subsequent lineout, they hacked the ball away, only for Leiua to feed Malins. With unseemly ease, the full-back accelerated between Toulon’s centres to glide to the line and break Toulon open, as the game entered the final quarter. Two Sheedy penalties in the last five minutes lent the score a more appropriate sheen.