Cornish Pirates keen to test their progress
Cornish Pirates head coach Ian Davies expects his side's Championship match with Bristol to provide a measure of their recent progress.
The Pirates host their bitter rivals at Mennaye Field on New Year's Day hoping to repeat last season's home heroics. The Cornish side ended Bristol's hope of a return to the Aviva Premiership by beating them in the Championship semi-finals.
A 45-24 first-leg win in Penzance created an insurmountable aggregate lead, despite Bristol's brave efforts at the Memorial Stadium days later.
Pirates also beat them 18-17 in the regular season phase of the Championship last term.
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Both sides are battling to earn their place in this season's play-offs, with a top-four league finish required, instead of top eight as in previous years. Bristol are currently fourth but Pirates are just three points adrift in sixth.
Davies said: "At the end of the season, if you are above Bristol you are a going to be in that top four. If we can turn Bristol over at home, it will put us in good stead to push for that top-four spot. If they beat us, they are favourites for fourth place and it becomes harder for us."
Pirates approach the game in good form. They are unbeaten since their unsuccessful trip to Bedford last – and that defeat at Goldington Road was their first loss in six games.
Pirates' latest win was a tense 9-5 victory over Plymouth Albion on Boxing Day. Davies admits the short time between fixtures is an issue. He said: "It's a short turnaround before New Year's Day and a massive game against Bristol. We always measure ourselves against Bristol because they are a consistently good side.
"We're in a happy place now but if we lose the next game we are back in a world of pain. We have to keep the momentum going, the boys will need to rest a little bit now. They will then have a week off after the Bristol game."
After two losses in the previous two Championship finals and the departure of high performance manager Chris Stirling, the 2012-13 campaign has been transitional one. The club recently reasserted its ambitions and Davies is happy to continue his role alongside his assistant Harvey Biljon.
"The management board seem to be happy with myself and Harvey. If we'd lost to Albion, maybe that would have changed," he said.
"We're trying to move things forward and hoping to pick up some recruits. It has been a hard season with a small squad of players and a large number of dual-registered players.
"That has made life quite difficult for myself and Harvey but we're doing well at the moment. We end 2012 on a high note and we have to start 2013 on a high note against Bristol."
Bristol have won nine of their last ten matches in all competitions, including their last six in total and four in a row in the Championship, to move into the top four.
They remain a massive 23 points adrift of leaders Newcastle, but second-placed Bedford (11 points ahead of them) and third-placed Nottingham (seven) are now in resurgent Bristol's sight.
Bristol beat Doncaster 26-18 last Sunday to move above Leeds and into fourth place – and victory at the Pirates on New Year's Day would give Liam Middleton's squad another timely confidence boost.
Bristol full-back Jack Tovey knows his side face a hard task, though. He said: "It's a very tough league and we need to get ready for Pirates now.
"We haven't had much luck down there in recent seasons, so we know it's going to be a very tough game. They've got a hostile crowd down there and it's a long journey, but everybody is looking forward to it."