Bristol 9 Wasps 9: Bristol draw benefit from desperation

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The Independent Online

When one of the English club game's more excitable masters of ceremonies uses the word "attritional" to sum up an afternoon's Premiership proceedings, as opposed to the usual "amazing" or "sensational" or "splendiferous", it is clear that the audience has not been treated to much in the way of champagne rugby. By common consent, this was about as enticing as a half-pint of Lemsip - a one-dimensional slog without so much as a suggestion of a try to quicken the pulse or gladden the soul.

It was, then, a measure of Bristol's desperation to retain their élite status in the face of outlandish pre-season odds that they celebrated this division of the spoils with arms aloft. Their two points were infinitely more significant than the pair credited to the reigning champions' account, for the very good reason that they took the West Countrymen clear of the immediate reach of Leeds, who are now seven adrift at the foot of the table.

Wasps were by some distance the more dynamic side in attack, but they scrummaged so poorly and coughed up so much ball at the line-out that their assaults on the Bristol line were rarer than hen's teeth.

Bristol dominated all the areas that should matter most in the winning of a game of rugby and boasted the most commanding figure of the day in the ball-carrying No 8, Dan Ward-Smith, but were found horribly wanting on the imagination front. The average amoeba would have proved more inventive.

"We really didn't mean to play that way," said their coach, Richard Hill. "In fact, we picked Tommy Hayes ahead of Jason Strange at outside-half specifically to bring some flair to our game. But Tommy didn't have the best 50 minutes of his career and the weather turned nasty enough to make life difficult for the runners and handlers.

"Anyway," he added, "we're at the business end of the season now and we're going to have to forsake some attacking adventure in search of the points that will keep us up. I'm happy with the two we secured here. Very happy, actually."

Hayes did indeed have a rotten time of it. His early goal-kicking was more accurate than his punting - with the best will in the world, it could hardly have been less accurate - but by the time he was withdrawn early in the second half, he was no longer threatening the posts. Strange, who had worn the No 10 shirt all season, looked a far better bet when he entered the fray and duly kicked the penalty that squared the argument. Sadly for Bristol, his forwards could not find a means of putting him in decent range a second time.

He underclubbed one attempt from distance - indeed, he finished so embarrassingly short it appeared he had mistaken his putter for a driver - while Jeremy Staunton, asked to take over Wasps' marksmanship duties from the less than convincing Mark van Gisbergen, missed a more obvious match-winning opportunity in the 78th minute. These miscues defined the game. Bristol huffed and puffed to little avail, Wasps weaved some interesting patterns but lost the thread whenever they threatened to impose their extra class.

Ian McGeechan, their director of rugby, was suitably philosophical. "Desperation is a difficult thing to counter," he argued. "More than half the Premiership still have one eye on relegation, and as there isn't a bad side in the competition, a good side will find themselves going down in May. If the paying public want a close tournament, they've certainly got one this season. We're going to face more of these dog-fights before the end of the campaign, so we'd better get used to it."

Once again, the elderly Bristol pack emerged from a debilitating game without so much as a single injury. Wasps, meanwhile, lost two of their international backs - the centre Stuart Abbott with a shin problem and, more worryingly for the England coach Andy Robinson ahead of this weekend's Calcutta Cup match, the wing Tom Voyce, who forfeited a couple of teeth after his dental arrangement finished a poor second to Lee Robinson's knee.

Bristol: Penalties Hayes 2, Strange. Wasps: Penalties Van Gisbergen 2, Staunton.

Bristol: B Stortoni (V Going, 69); L Robinson, R Higgitt, S Cox, D Lemi; T Hayes (J Strange, 52), S Perry; D Hilton, M Regan, D Crompton, N Budgett (M Sambucetti, 69), G Llewellyn, M Salter (capt), C Short, D Ward-Smith.

Wasps: M Van Gisbergen; P Sackey, R Hoadley, S Abbott (A Erinle, 10), T Voyce (F Waters, 58); J Staunton, M Dawson; T Payne, J Barrett (B Gotting, 51), P Bracken (E Va'a, 46), S Shaw, G Skivington, D Leo, T Rees (J O'Connor, 54), L Dallaglio (capt).

Referee: A Rowden (Berkshire).

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