Rugby Union: Mannix masters Bristol

Allied Dunbar Premiership: Table-topping Gloucester the pride of the West as Saints sink the Blues; Bristol 25 Gloucester 38
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SO DISDAINFUL were Bristol of their opponents' lofty position atop the league that they gave them the wind, and three soft tries in the first half.

The transformation in Bristol from plodding incompetents to sleek thoroughbreds afterwards was remarkable, but they had left themselves with far too much to do. By their second-half display, however, they turned what appeared to be a one-sided contest into a thrilling game.

Unfortunately they were not quite good enough to repair the damage when it was their turn to play with the wind at their backs. The plain truth is that Gloucester were the better side, sharper behind the scrum where their half-backs Simon Mannix and Elton Moncrieff played with control and understanding. Their forwards were also a yard faster in deed and thought, and in Ian Jones, who was making his league debut, they may well have the capture of the season.

The Gloucester line-out inflicted terrible damage on Bristol's overworked and often poorly-marshalled defence. So many of Gloucester's most menacing attacks were generated by clean-cut possession from the line-out, which created space for Kingsley Jones and Steve Ojomoh to drive into Bristol's midfield and set up first-class possession, which was speedily recycled for the backs.

Bristol's cardinal sin, having won the toss and given Gloucester first use of the wind, was to concede 10 points in the first six minutes. It was Matthew Back's failure to control a high kick in the first minute which created Gloucester's initial attacking platform. Jones soared on to the ball and Mannix cleverly delayed his pass before releasing Chris Yates through the middle for the simplest of tries. Mannix converted and four minutes later kicked his first penalty from fully 50 yards after Paul Whittaker had been harshly penalised for failing to release the ball.

Despite the setbacks, Bristol remained encouragingly self- confident. Dean Ryan was his usual abrasive self and even their difficulties in the line-out were overcome by some imaginative ploys, most of them involving Paul Johnstone, their four-square prop, running up and down the line like a demented ferret. A key figure in Bristol's strategy was their Argentinian scrum-half Agustin Pichot, whose running and generalship were always dangerous. He caused all manner of problems to the Gloucester defence, and in the second half made a couple of searing breaks to set up the thrilling finish.

There was, too, a physical dimension to Bristol's midfield with Henry Honiball and Jamie Mayer relishing the contact. Honiball closed the gap with two penalties squeezed out of Gloucester's defence, but whenever the pressure was at its most intense Gloucester used their heads and the elements. Their wind-assisted kicking gave Back a torrid time of it and unfortunately for him he always appeared to be a couple of yards out of position and off the pace. On another day things will go his way, but not this time.

Given a break at this stage there was enough evidence to suggest that Bristol might have gone on to greater things but at the crucial moment they embarked on a series of ruinous manoeuvres which ended with Mayer stranded on the right wing and Terry Fanolua making off with the ball before sending Kingsley Jones galloping unopposed to the line. Mannix converted that try as well and for good measure kicked his second penalty soon afterwards.

A pattern was now beginning to emerge - Bristol cock-up, Gloucester try, Mannix conversion, followed by Mannix penalty. Lo and behold it happened a third time before the interval. Another line-out cleanly won, a drive by Serge Simon who is fast becoming a cult hero with the Gloucester following, before Yates fed Tom Beim who had come off his wing. Mannix, with his third conversion, followed by his third penalty, gave Gloucester a comfortable and apparently unassailable lead of 24 points.

Bristol, though, were unrecognisable with the wind behind them. They tore into the Glouc-ester defence with a recklessness and enthusiasm which had been notably absent during the first 40 minutes. Ryan made the first breach with a try from a scrummage and a couple of minutes later Mayer barged over. Then with 12 minutes left and the excitement mounting Back atoned for his earlier sins with Gloucester's third try to close the gap to five points.

But Gloucester regrouped and drove forward once more with controlled ferocity. Mannix struck a drop goal straight and true to give Gloucester a little breathing space and in injury time with a running battle proceeding in the middle of the field Byron Hayward pounced on Mannix's kick-ahead to score the try which sealed a marvellously entertaining match.

Bristol: M Back; S Marsden, J Mayer, P Whittaker (J Ogilvie-Bull, 40), L Best; H Honiball, A Pichot; P Johnstone, B Williams, D Crompton (P Lemoine, 73), O Booyse, S Morgan, C Evans, D Ryan (capt), A Vander (C Short, 73).

Gloucester: B Hayward; C Catling, T Fanolua (J Ewens, 78), C Yates, T Beim; S Mannix, E Moncrieff; S Simon (T Woodman, 68), C Fortey, A Deacon (P Vickery, 40), R Fidler (M Cornwell, 74), I Jones, S Ojomoh, E Pearce, K Jones (capt).

Referee: S Lander (Cheshire).

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