Some of the rugby this season has been of bargain-basement quality, despite perfect conditions for running and handling and tripping the light fantastic - Argos stuff delivered in a Harrod's environment. Actually, make that most of the rugby. Most, but not all. Yesterday, in front of more than 11,000 spectators at the dear old Memorial Ground in Bristol, the Guinness Premiership finally showed the best of itself as the home side out-scored, out-fought and out-lasted a tenacious Wasps team wholly intent on staying top of the table. Quite how the elderly West Countrymen managed the last feat is anyone's guess, but theirs was a performance deserving of medals the size of soup plates.
Bristol ended a tumultuous afternoon five points clear of the Londoners on the scoreboard and two points ahead of them on the ladder. Richard Hill, their coach, is not obviously prone to vertigo, having scaled the heights during a fine career as England's scrum-half. He dare not look down just at present, however: the precipice is too sheer, the drop too great. The only thing for it is to keep climbing, with one eye on a Heineken Cup place at season's end.
There are precious few young bucks among Hill's charges. Of yesterday's starting line-up, no fewer than six players - Mark Regan, Darren Crompton, Roy Winters, Gareth Llewellyn, Jason Strange and Josh Taumalolo - will not see their 20s again. Dave Hilton barrelled his way off the bench for his 200th appearance at the ripe old age of 36. Even the fresh-faced wannabes recruited at the start of last season, Shaun Perry and Dan Ward-Smith, are 28. Yet these people could be playing for the under-13s, such is their enthusiasm. They are rampant, not raddled.
"How does it feel to be top? It feels peculiar," Hill admitted. "It takes a bit of believing that we are where we are, but there again, this is the result of a huge effort from everyone. If I had to be hyper-critical, I'd say we were off our defensive game in midfield. I can handle people the size of Ayoola Erinle breaking tackles, but I can't handle a David Walder doing it. I've also made some notes about our lack of composure and precision in the opposition red zone. But all things considered, I'm delighted with what we've achieved."
Four-try performances against Wasps do not come free with cornflake packets, but Bristol's quartet of five-pointers covered the spectrum from collective organisation - Crompton opened the scoring from a perfectly constructed rolling maul - to individual brilliance. The second-half tries that fell to Ward-Smith and Taumalolo both came packaged with moments of inspiration, but for sheer effrontery, David Lemi's astonishing intervention on 32 minutes took the proverbial biscuit. The Samoan flummoxed Eoin Reddan by gathering a loose ball and spinning away down the left before leaving Paul Sackey for dead on the inside track and then curving away from the covering Simon Shaw to finish at the flag.
This brought Bristol back to parity at 12-12 - Sackey, dangerous with every touch, had given the visitors an advantage with two tries in five minutes early in the second quarter - and from there on in, the argument raged to and fro. Wasps performed minor miracles in surviving the near-simultaneous departures of Shaw and Peter Bracken to the sin bin; indeed, they emerged from this period of penance three points to the good. But Ward-Smith broke the game open again after Nathan Budgett delivered line-out ball with his first touch and Perry set sail down the left wing.
Perry's star continues to shoot across the sky, in the general direction of Twickenham. It is there, against the All Blacks on 5 November, that he will surely take his first step in Test rugby, either as the starting scrum-half or as replacement for his most obvious rival, Peter Richards of Gloucester. Perry managed the game beautifully yesterday - no mean feat against opponents so well versed in the art of playing matches on their own terms. His broken-field running was as potent as ever, his tackling characteristically courageous, his tactical kicking a model of common sense.
Wasps, on the other hand, were not great on the common-sense front. With the outsized Erinle and the undersized Walder making ground almost at will, they created enough opportunities to win the game by a dozen points or more. Yet their big-names fumbled at crucial moments - Josh Lewsey, of all people, butchered one prime attacking position when he contracted a sudden dose of Teflonitis - and they finished the game crying out for the know-how of an Alex King or a Lawrence Dallaglio. As Bristol will readily confirm, there is always a place for a pensioner or two.
Bristol: Tries Crompton, Lemi, Ward-Smith, Taumalolo; Conversions Strange 3. Wasps: Tries Sackey 2; Conversion Walder; Penalties Staunton 2, Walder.
Bristol: C Morgan (W Pozzebon, 29-35 & 67); L Robinson, J Taumalolo, S Cox, D Lemi; J Strange, S Perry; A Clarke (D Hilton, 61), M Regan (D Blaney, 72), D Crompton, R Winters, G Llewellyn (N Budgett, 61), M Salter (capt), A To'oala, D Ward-Smith.
Wasps: T Voyce; P Sackey, A Erinle, J Staunton, J Lewsey; D Walder (N Adams 36-42, J Brooks 77), E Reddan (S Amor, 72); T Payne (capt), R Ibañez (J Ward, 42), P Bracken (N Adams, 52-61), S Shaw (R Birkett, 48), T Palmer, D Leo (T Rees, 75), J Worsley, J Hart.
Referee: R Maybank (Kent).Reuse content