As part of Bristol's new "match-day entertainment" package, their director of rugby, Richard Hill, gets to nominate a shortlist of three of his charges for the player-of-the-day award. This would be an embarrassing enough task after the final whistle, especially for a coach who places such store on a "no-stars" approach to the sport. To be asked to do it during a game as spellbindingly grim as this one must have been purgatorial in the extreme. Hill duly came up with a trio of names, but only on the basis that they were less bad than the other 12.
That being said, the West Countrymen deserved to avoid defeat at the Memorial Ground yesterday afternoon, not least because their driving maul was the best thing on offer from either side. It gave them both their tries and they would probably have claimed a third but for their opponents' shenanigans in countering the tactic. Saracens did not so much flirt with illegality as bed it and marry it, so there was something blissfully moral about the way Shaun Perry, very much in the frame for the England scrum-half position, earned a draw in the 11th and final minute of stoppage time.
The home side were 13-8 adrift when Perry's half-back partner, Jason Strange, presented his forwards with an attacking line-out seven metres out. Not before time, Saracens were adjudged guilty of sharp practice and penalised. Strange hit the spot again, and this time the Bristol pack surged into the in-goal area, propelling Perry into five-point territory in the process. Strange missed the match-winning kick, over-compensating to the left of the sticks having pushed a previous shot right. Somehow, this failure captured the spirit of the occasion.
Saracens peaked early - after four minutes, to be precise. Simon Raiwalui, showing the best of his Fijian heritage, flicked a wondrous pass to Dan Scarbrough as the Bristol defence got their gaps and angles in a rare old twist, thereby allowing the full-back to cut inside off his left foot and finish in style. Sadly for the visitors, they went downhill from there. "We were too dumb," said Alan Gaffney, their exasperated coach. "We're training well, but when we go on the field it's as if we take off the head and replace it with a pumpkin."
With Bristol barely able to raise a gallop - their performance in the first half was distinguished only by the odd dart from Perry and some ruthless tackling by Rob Higgitt in midfield - the Londoners should have been done and dusted by the interval. Yet a combination of their own ineptitude and the stop-start nature of the contest, which could hardly have been slower had it been played on wet cement, meant Saracens turned round only 7-3 to the good.
Minutes after the restart, they were 8-7 to the bad. Bristol launched three of those driving mauls from close range, each one more dynamic and better organised than its predecessor. From the third of them, the tight-head prop Darren Crompton dabbed the ball over the line.
It was no more than the old boy deserved. Together with his equally venerable front-row partners Dave Hilton and Mark Regan, he drew the sting from what should have been a powerful Saracens scrum and earned his side an edge in that vital theatre of action.
"Last year we took nothing from this fixture," said Hill. "Part of what this season is about is reversing those results." Bristol did not manage a full reversal, but they remain unbeaten.
Bristol: Tries Crompton, Perry; Penalty Strange. Saracens: Try Scarbrough; Conversion Jackson; Drop goals Scarbrough, Jackson.
Bristol: J Taumalolo; L Robinson, R Higgitt, S Cox, C Morgan; J Strange (D Gray, 69-72), S Perry; D Hilton (A Clarke, 72), M Regan, D Crompton, R Winters, G Llewellyn, M Salter (capt; G Lewis, 72), J El Abd, D Ward-Smith.
Saracens: D Scarbrough; R Haughton, K Sorrell, B Johnston, T de Vedia (R Penney, 63); G Jackson, A Dickens (M Rauluni, 77); K Yates, S Byrne (M Cairns, 75), C Visagie, T Ryder (K Chesney, 65), S Raiwalui (capt), P Gustard, D Seymour, H Vyvyan.
Referee: C White (Gloucestershire).Reuse content