This was not the most compelling argument for summer rugby, but Bristol have used the lockdown to inject themselves with pragmatism. Anyone looking for Covid metamorphoses after five months of inactivity would have been hard to detect any difference with defences dominating, but the ugliest of victories was a signal success for the Bears.
It was a meeting between the rising and the crestfallen. Bristol are not afraid to voice their ambition and their latest high-profile recruit, Semi Radradra, made his debut in the centre. The Fijian may as well have been in the empty stands during an opening half when he received a solitary pass, and that was when the referee was playing advantage for yet another breakdown infringement. But he did treble his tally after the break.
Radradra was used as a decoy a few times, but Bristol struggled to find space with Saracens, led by Maro Itoje, Billy Vunipola and the wing Rotimi Segun, preventing ball-carriers getting into a stride and taking advantage of the belated decision of referees in the Premiership to have a look at what players on the attacking side get up to at the breakdown. Bristol were forced to kick hurriedly, inviting the counter-attack, and lost four of their line-outs in the first 35 minutes.
Saracens should have led comfortably at the interval, but they only had two Alex Goode penalties to show for their territorial advantage. They were fielding just six of the side that overwhelmed Bristol last December, and only one of those was in the backs. They only looked threatening when the Vunipola brothers were in possession.
One of Saracens’ try scorers eight months ago was the back rower Ben Earl. He has now joined Bristol on a season’s loan, and he came on at the start of the second half for Nathan Hughes, his first touch claiming a Harry Randall grubber before being tackled five metres from the line.
Bristol had more about them after the break, not for the first time this season, as if they needed to be told where they were going wrong. They started to maul and exploit their one clear advantage, which lay in the scrum, where Mako Vunipola was warned early to improve his technique or reflect on it in the sin-bin. But the obduracy of Saracens, now in training for next month’s European Champions Cup quarter-final in Leinster, continued to frustrate them.
The home side’s defence was as organised as Saracens. Callum Sheedy’s third-quarter penalties came after Goode and Callum Hunter-Hill were forced to hold on to the ball having been isolated, and his third, after Goode had restored the visitors’ lead, followed another powerful scrum. Saracens had two opportunities to tilt a tight match decisively their way when they kicked two penalties to touch: the first ended with Kyle Sinckler, on his Bristol debut having come off the bench, infringing at the breakdown, and the second was repelled by aggressive counter-rucking which earned the Bears a turnover scrum.
The match produced 36 penalties, most at the breakdown, and when Max Lahiff entered a ruck from the side, Goode put his side ahead for the third time. There were so many infringements that there was little continuity, only pockets of individualism: Luke Morahan had a solo try ruled out after Harry Thacker was ruled to have cleared his path by blocking Itoje, and after breaking three tackles to get into the Saracens’ 22, Thacker lost control of the ball.
It was a line-out that won it for Bristol. Aled Davies’s box-kick had more height than distance. Segun tried to flick it on near halfway, but it went forward and was picked up by Goode in an off-side position. Sheedy found touch six yards from the line and Siale Piutau touched down after a drive. A review revealed he had been tackled into touch by Jamie George, who had entered the ruck from the side. The England hooker was sent to the sin-bin and a penalty try awarded. There was still time for Saracens to force three attacking line-outs, but Bristol held firm to climb to second in the table.