By Ian Todd
September 11 2016
Bristol crashed to a 10 - 32 home defeat against Northampton. The bubble of optimism following the performance against 'Quins was well and truly burst after a first half in which a solitary penalty was the sole response to three tries. The second half was a better story but Bristol found out what it is like to face a Premiership side playing much nearer its best than the opponents of last week.
The first home game back in the Premiership started poorly with the kick-off going straight into touch. Northampton took full advantage of the field position that gave them and Bristol gave away a dull penalty at a lineout to let Myler put his side into a very early lead. Saints kept the pressure on Bristol with a very astute kicking game and the sort of aggressive line-speed we haven’t seen from any opponent for many seasons. Bristol’s defence were cut open by a great break from North who dotted down for an unconverted try.
Bristol were already, just as last week, getting on the wrong side of the referee but when his arm was eventually raised in Bristol’s favour the kick was for a lineout. Bristol claimed the ball and Northampton were penalised in a much more kickable spot. Tusi Pisi kicked the points to narrow the gap and be the first Pisi brother on the scoresheet. Unfortunately he wasn’t the only Pisi to score in the half. Before that happened Picamoles gave a fine demonstration of the dynamic ball-carrying for which Saints had recruited him when he smashed his way over the Bristol line for a converted try. There ws a long referral to the TMO when the person with the best view was undoubtedly the referee. You couldn’t see if the ball was down or not but the attacking side usually gets the benefit of the doubt in these situations. Things looked even worse for the home side when a cross field kick from Myler, as the referee played advantage, sailed out to Ken Pisi on the wing. Some poor defence gave him a run at the line and he was in the corner for a try. I’m pretty sure from the replay on the big screen (and I know it’s only temporary, but what a fine piece of engineering that is) that there was a foot in touch. Obviously in that situation you’d ask the TMO to look at it but apparently that isn’t the case. The conversion was spot on and Saints were 3 – 25 in front.
The second period started with Northampton kicking out on the full to give Bristol the scrum on half way. With the ball quickly out to the right the Bristol runner went away from his support and was penalised for holding on. A real contrast with the way Northampton had handled the same opportunity at the start of the first half.
Bristol did, however, look much sharper in the early exchanges and fleet-footed winger Soane Tonga’uiha made a burst down the left wing before popping a pass to Tom Varndell who sprinted towards the Northampton line, only for the cover defence to snuff out the threat about five metres out. Bristol continued to press and forced a good turnover at the breakdown. Pisi got the ball away but his pass wasn’t the best and Will Hurrell knocked on. Northampton made some ground and North broke clear on his wing and chipped the ball ahead. Ryan Edwards was back to cover the danger and shepherded the ball as it rolled dead. Despite Bristol’s early positivity, the set piece was starting to look a little wobbly but it regrouped enough that when Northampton gave away a penalty the catch and drive looked very solid. It crabbed in-field before Ross McMillan broke round the side of the maul to power over. Pisi converted and Bristol closed the gap to 10 – 25.
Saints continued to look by far the better side though and Bristol were either struggling to repel attacks or struggling to make any ground. However, it is worth noting that despite this Bristol were the only side to have scored in the second half. Regrettably that wasn’t how things ended when Haywood went over just before the end to give Saints the bonus point try. The conversion made the final score 10 – 32.
This was a sobering reintroduction to life in the Premiership and reinforced my notion that ‘Quins were not the sternest opponents we will face this season. Once again Bristol got on the wrong side of the referee. You could argue that the referee was, as last weekend, rather inconsistent in his interpretations and very lenient in just how many and how far players were allowed to go off their feet at a ruck but the fact is Bristol gave away far too many soft penalties. It is clear that we need to be far better organised and that the support was sometimes too slow in getting to a tackled player. In particular we need a fit Henson back in at 12 to give us another kicking option. The real difference was that when Bristol started to make some inroads in the second half Northampton’s bench was a step up in terms of experience compared with ours and they were able to close us down all too easily. The forwards, with a few shaky moments, probably held their own, but the backline struggled to make much headway in the face of a well organised defence. The 9, 10, 12 axis really needs looking at if we are to prosper at this level.