Bristol rankled as Championship play-offs cost them again
No team has the divine right to play in the Premiership, as heavyweights Harlequins and Northampton know only too well, you have to earn your place among rugby's elite.
But with average crowds of over 5,000, a squad flush with former top-flight players and a millionaire owner - in the shape of Bristol City executive Steve Lansdown - no one could contest that Bristol were not primed and ready to make their return after a three-year absence.
Everything was in place: they finished top of the Championship by seven points, they topped pool A of the play-offs, they have a stadium that is fit for, and has already graced, the English top flight.
And then came the play-offs.
Bristol's fortunes in past decade
- 2001/2 - Premiership - 8th
- 2002/3 - Premiership - 12th, relegated
- 2003/4 - National League One - 9th
- 2004/5 - National League One - 1st, promoted
- 2005/6 - Premiership - 11th
- 2006/7 - Premiership - 3rd, lost play-off semi to Leicester
- 2007/8 - Premiership - 9th
- 2008/9 - Premiership - 12th, relegated
- 2009/10 - Championship - 1st, lost in play-off final
- 2010/11 - Championship - 8th
- 2011/12 - Championship - 1st, lost in play-off semi-final
After a bullish first-half in the semi-final first leg against Cornish Pirates (leading 17-9 at the break) a loss of concentration and tired legs saw Bristol's promotion hopes implode at Mennaye Field as the Pirates racked up five second-half tries to take a 21-point lead up to The Mem.
The Bristolians battled hard to turn it around in the second leg but to no avail and so, for the second time in three years, the West Country were denied by a promotion structure widely condemned as grossly unjust.
"When you analyse it, our season came apart in 15 minutes last week," chairman Chris Booy told BBC Radio Bristol.
"We're clearly the best side. We won the league, we were the best qualifiers at the play-offs. That's why you have a league system, so it doesn't come down to 15 minutes of madness.
"That cannot be right and that's why I've always been against this system."
In 2009-10, under the leadership of Paul Hull and searching for an immediate return to the top tier, they ended the regular season with 19 wins from 22 games and lost just once in their play-off pool.
But their hopes were dashed by Exeter Chiefs who have since defied the odds to maintain their Premiership status and now qualify for the Heineken Cup.
A budget cut ensued, prompting a mass exodus in the squad and last season ended in stark contrast.
Head coach Liam Middleton
“Bristol will return to the Premiership and when we do, we'll be set for it.”
They finished eighth and with five of their six play-off games ending in defeat, the semis were far from reach, although they did manage to claim some silverware in the British and Irish Cup.
Hull departed the Memorial Stadium at the end of the disappointing campaign and Liam Middleton was promoted from youth coach to take on first-team affairs at Bristol.
Middleton transformed the squad over the course of the season with 24 signings and is highly thought of by both the Bristol board and the Mem faithful.
"This has been a successful season," added Booy. "If you look back at where we were 12 months ago, we nearly ended up in a relegation dogfight. We've come from eighth to being one of the best sides in the league.
"Liam's a very thoughtful guy and a great planner. His analysis was realistic - we were a top-four side. He's on a three-year contract, we're on a three-year plan and we're in year one.
"We have to dust ourselves off."
The pressure was always on Bristol: a club rich in history and with a host of former internationals in their alumni, they were every bookie's favourite to replace Newcastle after the Falcons finished bottom of the Premiership pile.
They were also one of only two clubs - along with London Welsh - who had submitted a case to join the Premiership.
To Middleton's credit, amid the wreckage of Sunday's play-off exit, he insisted all was not lost.
"It's a tough end to what has been an encouraging season," said Middleton.
"We've made good strides forward and we've got to take that into account. We're probably evolving as a team and I still think we're in stage one of a three-stage process.
"Bristol will return to the Premiership and when we do, we'll be set for it. It's tough now, but I'm actually looking forward to seeing how I can do things better.
"The support has been phenomenal - hopefully they'll come on the journey with us next year."
Interviews by Alistair Durden and Damian Derrick