Rugby Union: Bristol owe it to his Knibbs

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Bristol . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .20

Harlequins. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .16

THIS was a day when hope triumphed over expectation. In appalling conditions when it was impossible to distinguish one drenched and mud-stained jersey from another, there was every expectation that this would be a game played exclusively by the forwards.

Yet there was always the hope that, somehow, somewhere, there might be some scraps for the backs. There was the hope too that Kyran Bracken, playing his first game since November, would survive intact, and - perhaps the faintest hope of all - that Ralph Knibbs, Bristol's most loyal servant, would score a try on his 400th appearance for the club. Incredibly, we got the lot.

Knibbs's try was the decisive one and came from an indescribable act of rashness by Harlequins. A quick throw in to a scattered line-out went straight to Craig Barrow and Knibbs flew in under the posts. Harlequins did score their second try by Alex Snow a few minutes later to bring them back into range but it was Quins who were engaged in desperate defence when the final whistle blew.

The pressure on Bracken was enormous. Not only was he playing his first match since Jamie Joseph's savagery had wrecked his ankle at Twickenham, but his every move was being monitored by the England manager, Geoff Cooke. Not only that, but he had to perform his subtle skills in such conditions. Yet such is the talent of this young man that he and his backs around him illuminated the dankest of afternoons.

Sensibly, Bracken contented himself in the greater service of others. And how magnificently his backs responded. On those rare occasions in the first half when they broke free from the cover of the Harlequins pack, they skimmed over the glutinous surface, their try on the stroke of half-time a masterpiece of touch and timing.

Knibbs broke blind, his perfectly timed pass putting David John into space. John, with equal precision, kicked past Kent Bray and easily won the race for the touchline.

It gave Bristol a lead which scarcely reflected the territorial advantage held by their opponents but which their venture and enterprise richly deserved. There were innumerable tests of Bristol's character.

Their early penalty kicked by Mark Tainton, a model of composure at fly-half, had been equalised by Bray and in Harlequins' first attack of the second half, Rob Glenister brought them level again with a try after Bray had been brought down just short of the line and Brian Moore had lent swift support to the attacking momentum.

Then, after Andy Blackmore had scored Bristol's second try, they were temporarily without the services of their inspirational skipper Derek Eves who had a head wound. Blackmore's try owed as much to Bracken's sharp exploitation of the narrowest of gaps on Harlequins' blind side of a ruck as it did to the forwards' swift and clean delivery.

The loss midway through the half of Harlequins' Australian No 8 Troy Coker finally destroyed any chance of a resurrection. But they had contributed mightily to a rousing contest.

Bristol: Tries John, Blackmore, Knibbs; Conversion Tainton; Penalty Tainton.

Harlequins: Tries Glenister, Snow; Penalties Bray 2.

Bristol: P Hull; D John, A Saverimutto, R Knibbs, S Crossland (R Kitchen, 76); M Tainton, K Bracken; P Smith, M Regan, D Hinkins, S Shaw, A Blackmore, R Armstrong, D Eves (capt), C Barrow.

Harlequins: K Bray; D O'Leary, W Carling, G Thompson, J Alexander; P Challinor, R Glenister; J Leonard, B Moore, A Mullins (capt), A Snow, S Dear, M Russell, C Sheasby, T Coker (R Jardin-Brown, 57).

Referee: S Lander (Liverpool Society).

(Photograph omitted)