As the news filtered through early in the second half of this match of Harlequins' defeat at Bath, the Wasps faithful sat back to enjoy an easy procession to the top of the table. But they reckoned without a Bristol fightback characterised by doggedness, heroic defence and sheer bloody-mindedness which pushed Wasps to the very last kick of the game.
During Wasps' final, desperate attack, after Bristol scored the try which they had threatened throughout the second half to edge a point in front, the visitors conceded a penalty for a collapsed scrum wide on the left touchline. Alex King, the Wasps stand-off, stepped up to take his first kick of the match when Wasps belatedly realised that the confidence of the normally reliable Jon Ufton was in tatters after he had missed five out of six attempts in the match. King's nerve held and the ball sailed through the posts to allow Wasps to scramble a victory, which earlier had seemed inevitable.
Wasps should have been out of sight at the interval after dominating Bristol in all aspects of the game but failing to score as heavily as their territorial advantage warranted. Damian Cronin and Andy Reed dominated in the line-out while the Wasps' back row of Lawrence Dallaglio, Chris Sheasby and Mike White were invariably first to the breakdown and provided a wealth of clean possession, which Wasps then failed to capitalise on. When King opened the scoring in the eighth minute, Wasps might have envisaged a comfortable afternoon.
Va'aiga Tuigamala, the solid, if sometimes static, pinion from which the bulk of Wasps' midfield invention originated, broke through on the scissors to set up a ruck in the corner. Wasps' forwards then recycled the ball four times until Bristol finally ran out of defenders and King strolled over in the corner.
For the rest of the half Wasps' forward dominance was absolute, but only one try resulted. The England pairing of Sheasby and Dallaglio battered at the Bristol defence, aided by swift, short passes from their fellow international Andy Gomarsall. Territory was gained and the ball was retained but too often the final pass went astray.
Wasps' second try was a classic back-row move with Bristol resorting to offside to halt the tide. But finally the pressure proved too much and King flicked up a pass for White to score. Then deep in first-half injury time Bristol made Wasps pay for their profligacy and poor goal kicking.
A drop-out from the unruffled boot of Paul Burke was not collected and Martin Corry burst down the touchline to link with his fellow flanker David Corkery. The ball was recycled quickly and, with Wasps' defence in disarray, the move was swept through the backs for the full-back Paul Hull to crash over the line.
Wasps began the second halfbrightly but Bristol seemed to sense their indecision and refused to buckle. Instead they broke up the play, pounced on any loose ball and forced Wasps back to their goal line.
But scoring still proved to be a dreadfully difficult business. Midway through the half, Bristol camped on Wasps' line but, after several scrums had been wheeled more than 180 degrees, when the ball finally did break loose, Bristol failed to capitalise. They finally got their reward in the 76th minute when a maul from good line-out ball close to Wasps' line was forced over for Corkery to score. Then came Wasps' last desperate attack and King's kick for glory.
Wasps: J Ufton; P Sampson, N Greenstock, V Tuigamala, S Roiser; A King, A Gomarsall; D Molloy, S Mitchell, W Green (I Dunston, 72), D Cronin, A. Reed, L Dallaglio (capt), C Sheasby, M White.
Bristol: P Hull; D Tiueti, S Martin, M Denney, B Breeze; P Burke, R Smith; A Sharp, M Regan, D Hinkins, S Shaw, C Eagle, M Corry (capt; C Barrow, 80), S Silali, D Corkery.
Referee: A Watson (Ireland).Reuse content