Bristol 23, London Wasps 23: Small's big call gives Wasps fair share

Substitute Barnes' late kick draws Bristol level after referee's controversial decision to award visitors a penalty try
Click to follow

It is almost too prosaic to note that the two points each side took from this draw did little to enhance their status in the lower half of the Guinness Premiership. League placings mean only so much and this match of coruscating tries, wincing close-quarter conflict and wind-ups beyond the dreams of Jeremy Beadle had loads more to enthuse over.

The New Zealand-born referee, Andrew Small, may not be welcome back in Bristol for a while after he awarded a questionable penalty try against the home scrum with 15 minutes remaining, but a penalty converted bravely by the home side's replacement kicker, Ed Barnes, eight minutes later squared it all up, probably fairly.

Barnes had come on for Jason Strange after the fly-half was tackled late and low by the Wasps hooker, Rob Webber, and withdrew with bruised ribs. Barnes fairly whacked over the kick from 30 metres out on a diagonal angle, which was some test of nerve given he had missed much closer in with the conversion of the full-back Luke Arscott's 49th-minute try which put Bristol 20-13 ahead.

Bristol's nerve had, for the most part, been cast-iron and they gave the ordinarily ultra-streetwise Wasps a lesson in the dark arts. The European champions had their locks, Simon Shaw and Richard Birkett, sent separately to the sin-bin while Bristol got on with confrontational bits and bobs beyond the ken of Mr Small. It was Matt Salter, the captain, at whom Birkett flung a backhanded fist on the fringe of a maul after 47 minutes, for the second yellow card.

Shaw, once of this parish, was booed heartily when he trotted off in the seventh minute for reaching out of a ruck to trip the Bristol scrum-half, Brian O'Riordan. Otherwise Wasps had begun in the kind of form that suggested Bristol's record of not losing at home since the first day of the season was going to be rewritten. The fly-half, Danny Cipriani, kicked a penalty from 40 metres after three minutes and converted a try while Shaw was off the pitch by the scrum-half, Eoin Reddan, which featured snappy passes between Mark van Gisbergen, Fraser Waters and Riki Flutey before the latter fed Reddan on his inside.

Bristol are top of their Heineken Cup pool but their director, Nigel Pomphrey, predicted they would finish between eighth and 10th in the Premiership. Still, they play with more adventure than they are generally credited with and despite the loss of Shaun Perry, Dan Ward-Smith and David Blaney they went wide and kept Wasps' defence, in which Cipriani was often at outside centre, alert.

Bristol's head coach, Richard Hill, had banned his players from mentioning the name of Stade Franais their next opponents in the Heineken Cup much as actors shun the word "Macbeth". The dagger Wasps saw before them in the first half was wielded by Bristol's 20-year-old wing, Tom Arscott, younger brother of Luke, who sprinted to tries in the 14th and 23rd minutes to turn a 10-0 deficit into a 12-10 lead.

First Arscott cut a sharp line, out to in, bouncing off Van Gisbergen, after Strange had occupied Wasps by hitting the ball up; Strange converted. Then a snaffle on the floor by the No 8, Andrew Blowers, helped set Arscott away again. He ran and he chipped and as Van Gisbergen dithered Arscott nicked the loose ball to make the line.

Wasps' captain, Lawrence Dallaglio, was rested, or at least relocated to the grandstand to help with video analysis. There was quite a brains trust up there. Shaun Edwards, the Wasps coach being courted by Wales and England Saxons, was within chatting distance of Kevin Bowring, the Rugby Football Union's head of elite coach development.

They would all have had a decent view of Wasps' penalty try at a five-metre scrum after Reddan had been held up short. It was the result of protracted pressure, although it was relieved momentarily before the climactic scrum went down by Blowers pinching possession.

"The penalty try was mystifying," said Hill. "We were on top in the scrum without any question. They weren't going to push us over from there. But that was points won today. We scored three very good tries and kept a good back line quiet."