Bristol kicked off the game and the hosts claimed the ball only to find the Bristol defence absolutely solid and ended up being shepherded into touch for an early Bristol lineout. The visitors went through several phases but couldn’t find a way through. A long and high kick ahead was claimed by Tom Varndell but he was taken out in the air and it was a penalty only. The referee may have been slightly generous in his interpretations at some points but he allowed the game to flow and, as a result it was an entertaining game despite a fair number of errors (by the players). The only really contentious point was a tackle by Lawes which certainly looked to have lifted the legs above the shoulders. He definitely looked a little apprehensive on the big screen afterwards. In any event Bristol went for touch and quick lineout ball saw Jason Woodward hand-off his man and free Varndell into some space only for the winger to step into touch. Saints gave away a penalty at the lineout to give Woodward a go at the posts but his effort was well to the left.
Saints strung together a good move to hit back at Bristol but a dangerous looking maul saw Bristol rip the ball away. Sadly the clearing kick, long though it was, was straight into the hands of North who smashed his way into the Bristol defence. A tap ahead from Foden went close to the Bristol line but Will Cliff just managed to get hold of it ahead of the attackers, but at the cost of conceding a five metre scrum. It was a great scrum by the hosts and the Bristol pack was shoved backwards and the superb Picamoles was in for the opening try. Bristol did well to claim the restart and Saints gave away a very soft penalty and this time Woodward was right on target. How often have I written that Bristol work hard for a try only to promptly give away a penalty? It was good to see other sides guilty of the same sloppiness.
A very sharp move from Bristol stunned the home support. Clean lineout ball, swiftly out wide, a solid drive towards the line, a neat pass back inside from the well placed support and then Mitch Eadie showed he could emulate his illustrious opposite number by registering Bristol’s first try. Woodward converted and Bristol were 7 – 10 in front. Woodward pushed his side even further in front with a very long-range penalty effort that just had the legs to clear the cross bar.
Saints tried to hit back and laid siege to the Bristol line. A few penalties as they drove close prompted fears of a yellow card, but the referee seemed uninterested. Another five metre lineout and, finally, Saints rumbled over and it was no surprise to see that it was Picamoles who claimed the try. The well-struck conversion made it 14 – 13 at half time.
Bristol made a poor start to the second period when a bullocking run from Picamoles crashed through several rather tentative tacklers before a sweet offload allowed Wood an easy run in for a converted try. But guess what? After registering a good try Saints promptly gave away a penalty and Woodward again narrowed the gap. Woodward did more than narrow the gap soon after. Well inside his own half he chipped ahead and the ball was claimed by Varndell who made ground. He must have been tremendously tempted to just pin his ears back and go for the record breaking try but he had the awareness, and unselfishness, to realise that Woodward was racing up in support. Varndell passed back inside and the fullback raced clear for a try by the posts. His conversion took Bristol into the lead at 21 – 23.
Unfortunately it was Bristol’s turn to concede almost immediately after scoring. Cliff attempted to clear the long restart but his effort was well charged down and Hanrahan was in for an unconverted try. This might have taken the wind out of Bristol’s sails but another excellent penalty from Woodward levelled the score at 26-all.
Bristol seemed to be flagging in the closing stages and were under pressure before conceding penalty in front of the posts. Myler made no mistake and Saints were back in front. The hosts kept up the pressure and a well struck drop-goal from replacement Mallinder edged Saints further in front. Bristol had not given up though and Woodward hurtled downfield only to be checked by Harrison. The ball trickled out of the side of the ruck and I was left bemoaning the poor control before I realised that Woodward had been knocked unconscious and probably wasn’t in a good position to laying the ball back! However, it did mean that Saints had the ball and it allowed them to be pressing at the Bristol line for a score that would have taken, rather unjustly, the losing bonus point away from Bristol. Fortunately Bristol weren’t down a man because Palamo was allowed to come back on to cover the HIA of Woodward. That seems a little odd because he obviously had received a head injury and it wasn’t very difficult to assess but that’s what the rule allows and it meant that Bristol had enough bodies on the pitch to plug the gaps. Saints couldn’t find a way through and the game ended 32 – 26.