Pienaar's youngsters put brakes on Bristol

Bristol 22 Saracens 25
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The Independent Online

Saracens have been at the end of a few hammerings in recent weeks as their raw youngsters have been trampled on while learning their Premiership trade on the hoof, so yesterday's performance, however bad the match, came as a huge relief.

As for Bristol they missed their Argentinian halfback pairing of Agustin Pichot and Felipe Contepomi. The latter in particular. His stand-in Shane Drahm was, frankly, abysmal. He might know how to kick a goal – he landed five penalties in all – but there remains a big question mark over his decision-making and ability to direct affairs.

His dithering frequently cost position and certainly lay at the root of the Saracens fightback when the Australian was caught in several minds and provided the opposition with the chance to advance on the Bristol line.

Saracens worked upfield to within 10m from that and the Bristol old boy Kyran Bracken, back with confidence from England's autumn Tests, took it on. He was held up, however, from the ensuing five-metre scrum, a cut-out pass by Luke Smith found the fullback Adryan Winnan in space and thereafter it was all uphill for Bristol as their game went downhill.

And in Smith Saracens had just as able a goal-kicker – he matched every Drahm kick until his sixth penalty, 28 minutes into the second half, which finally edged Saracens in front – but, crucially, he and Bracken were able to control things far better.

There were some positives for Bristol, but they were few. Their fullback Lee Best is not merely courageous, he is also dangerous on the counter and solid in defence; Ben Sturnham was a handful going forward, as was their try-scorer, Adam Vander.

But Vander's early touchdown flattered to deceive, as the hopes engendered by a bright start quickly burned down to a smouldering pile of ash as errors crept into the home side's game like an insidious disease.

Saracens were able to dominate the line-out pretty much throughout, with Scott Murray worrying the bejesus out of every Bristol throw and guaranteeing a torrent of possession on his own team's ball.

Yet had Bristol been able to maintain the momentum of a rollicking start they could have been out of sight by half time. The way they strung together a skein of phases before Jason Little broke the line then sent in Vander under the posts in the fourth minute promised much.

Sadly, it was not to be. There was a moment, an hour into the game, when it looked as if Bristol might have found the means to wrest victory from Saracens; the second row Andrew Sheridan plunged over from a line-out, only to have his try disallowed because Sturnham was penalised for obstruction.

That at least sparked a fiery last spell, but Saracens held on. For Bristol's Dean Ryan, banned from the touchline for a further three weeks, there is much work to be done. For his counterpart Francois Pienaar it looks as if his young charges are finally coming of age. For all that, Pienaar said he will be announcing the short-term signing of a prop from the Southern Hemisphere later today to help his club through their injury crisis.

Bristol: Try Vander; Conversion Drahm; Penalties Drahm 5. Saracens: Try Winnan; Conversion Smith; Penalties Smith 6.

Bristol: L Best; D Rees, P Christophers, J Little (capt), L Nabaro (S Brown, 54); S Drahm, D van Zyl (R Blake, 78); P Johnstone, N McCarthy (S Nelson, 75), J White, A Sheridan, A Brown, C Short, B Sturnham (J Brownrigg, 75), A Vander.

Saracens: A Winnan; B Sparg, B Johnston, K Sorrell, D O'Mahony; L Smith, K Bracken (capt); L Harbut, M Cairns, S Phillips, K Benazzi (S Hooper, 70), S Murray, K Roche (R Hill, 70), B Cole, A Roques.

Referee: A Rowden (Thatcham, Berks).