By Innings
April 14 2019

For some reason, I was never more convinced than yesterday that I was travelling to an away loss. Passing the Marlborough turn-off on the M4, I realised that I had carelessly worn blue socks, against my usual habit or superstition of never wearing any colour of sock that included any colour associated with the opposition. In addition, I thought that Mark McCall had selected a starting XV that was simply too callow to thrive in a bear-pit where the bears were certain to be utterly committed to fighting for their survival. On top of that, Sarries are now a team that none fears away from Allianz Park.  

Ashton Gate is not the easiest place to reach. Arrivals from the M4 or M5 are more or less forced to navigate the vastly extensive work in progress that is the modernisation of Bristol city centre’s transport links. However, once I arrived, I was very pleased by the JustPark app. I’d booked a place on someone’s drive, arriving, parking in a moment and walking five minutes to the ground, what could have been easier? The stadium itself is just right, not so big that the 15,000 or so crowd was lost, but big enough to accommodate the bigger crowds that success will bring to the club.

The concourses are well-stocked with food and drink outlets, with consequently manageable queuing times. Then to my seat, high up in the east stand, looking down on a pitch that could have been hosting its first game of the season, with perfect surface. Long-term supporters on both sides, friendly, knowledgeable and both anticipating a gallant effort that might give the Bears a losing bonus point.

It would be difficult to report on the match itself. Does one report on the actual game and result or does one write, in today’s new words, a panegyrical hagiography? OK, it has to be a report. From the first whistle to the last, this was a grim spectacle. It begins with a fumbled first take of the Bears’ kick-off and ends with the ball sailing through the posts to give the hosts a deserved win.

We can drill down from that précis. The thing to note is that to the surprise and frustration of many in the crowd, Bears had decided to tear up the game plan that has been their hall-mark all season. We saw very little speculative running from deep, plenty of kicking for clearance. With Sarries adopting the same tactics, I saw a lot of the ball travelling back and forth, at about my own eye-height. From this position, it soon became clear that Pat Lam had prepared his side well for this change in style. The Sarries back three pendulum stuttered throughout, with some disfunction between the trio of Sean Maitland, Alex Goode and Alex Lewington. To add to that problem, the famed Sarries’ kick-chase needs better kicking if it is to press the opposition pendulum, and in this game neither the kicking not the chasing was consistently of the standard that we come to expect. The final piece of the jigsaw seems to be that Sarries cannot prosper in a game, which at one stage had me thinking of the infamous 1963 5 Nations Game of the Thousand Lineouts, with a hooker whose familiarity with banjos and unfamiliarity with cows’ backsides is so obvious.

Bears opened the scoring with a soft penalty. Scrum-half Tom Whiteley marked his maiden Premiership start with a run to the posts after Max Malins had made the

opening with a sharp break, catching the usually alert Bears just on the wrong foot. Another penalty, and half-time came none too soon for either side to regroup and plan for something less error-strewn in the second period.

The second half could never have been as poor as the first. We saw four tries, two apiece, including one magnificent sight of John Afoa, far too old for this sort of running, bursting up towards the posts and passing perfectly for the support to score. In the space of about fifteen minutes, the lead changed hands three or four times, not least because on 50 minutes MMc had seen the wind blowing and decided to send on the bench. Billy, Maro, Vincent, Ben and Alex (L), all arriving to shore up the struggling team. Initially it worked well, with a neat drive-by from a line out, from which the unlikely figure of Marcelo Bosch seemed to emerge as the scorer, at the third attempt, including a second which saw Bears hooker leave the field for illegally bringing down the drive. However, even whilst Thacker looked on, Bears were able to recover with a second try.

Billy’s reception made the front pages this morning. Apparently, journalists report that he was roundly booed with every touch of the ball. Frankly, that is not true: I have heard more booing at the pantomime, and even that fizzled a bit after the first three or so rounds.

And so to the final minute. Sarries are hanging on at 20-21. Another lineout, all that is required is two phases and a kick to touch, but all that happens is a sealing-off penalty in front of the posts, the easiest of kicks and a game that Bears deserved to win. Why did they deserve it? They selected better, prepared better and executed less poorly.

The last cameo performance came from Bears 9, Andy Uren. After the final whistle he came back on, leaped into the huddle of wild celebrations by the team and dived, literall nose-first onto the head of one of his team-mates. As the celebrations went on around him poor Andy was staggering around, clearly needing either an HIA or treatment for a broken nose.

And, for the last part of this report, back to The Teddy Bears Picnic. Being of a certain age, I recall the song as a staple of Saturday mornings and Children’s Choice

If you go down in the woods today,you're sure of a big surprise
If you go down in the woods today you'd better go in disguise!
For every bear that ever there was will gather there for certain because
Today's the day the Teddy Bears have their picnic

Picnic time for Teddy Bears,
The little Teddy Bears are having a lovely time today
Watch them, catch them unawares,
And see them picnic on their holiday
See them gaily gad about,
They love to play and shout, they never have any cares
At six o'clock their Mommies and Daddies will take them home to bed
Because they're tired little Teddy Bears

Every Teddy Bear whose been good
Is sure of a treat today
There's lots of marvellous things to eat
And wonderful games to play......

What does this game mean in the bigger context? First of all, MMc is now campaigning again on two fronts. A home play-off place is too important for any more slip-ups, and Gloucester are now bang in form. Sarries can easily lose all three of their remaining games, and Gloucester can win three. Equally importantly, will Sarries take their home form or their away flakiness to the Ricoh on this coming Saturday? We have become used to success, but for me this team is drifting between Scilla and Charybdis, and we need Odysseus to navigate the perils. He was not at the helm at Ashton Gate.

Bristol: Protheroe; Pincus, O'Conor, Bedlow, Leiua; Sheedy (co-capt), Uren; Woolmore, Thacker, Afoa, Holmes, Vui, Luatua (co-capt), Thomas, Haining.
Replacements: Fenton-Wells, Lay, Thiede, Smith, Heenan, Randall, Madigan, Pisi.

Saracens: Alex Goode (co-capt); Sean Maitland, Marcelo Bosch, Nick Tompkins, Alex Lewington; Max Malins, Tom Whiteley; Richard Barrington, Christopher Tolofua, Titi Lamositele, Nick Isiekwe, Nick Skelton, Calum Clark, Mike Rhodes, Jackson Wray (co-capt).
Replacements: Jamie George, Ralph Adams-Hale, Vincent Koch, Maro Itoje, Ben Earl, Billy Vunipola, Ben Spencer, Alex Lozowski.

Referee: Thomas Foley.