Bristol play-off hopes dented with loss to Nottingham
Bristol - 19
Nottingham - 23
BRISTOL still have plenty of work to do to reach the Championship play-offs on the evidence of this deeply disappointing reverse against promotion rivals Nottingham.
After the euphoria of a flawless victory over Bedford, Bristol were brought crashing down to earth by the well-organised visitors who won with a bit to spare.
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Bristol did not help themselves, a fatal defensive lapse gifting Nottingham their second try on the hour, while fly-half Tristan Roberts missed three of his six kicks at goal, in contrast to his opposite number James Arlidge who had a 100 per cent return from five efforts.
Newly-installed director of rugby Andy Robinson certainly had plenty to reflect on after his first home game in charge, particularly as Bristol now have only five games to go before the end of the season.
With the stakes so high, it was perhaps understandable that both sides showed early signs of nerves with knock-ons and fumbles the order of the day.
Bristol edged the opening exchanges and after Roberts - a late call-up for head injury victim, Adrian Jarvis - was narrowly wide with a 35-metre penalty from the left, the fly-half nudged over another kick, from an identical position on the other side of the pitch, thanks to the assistance of an upright.
Marco Mama then brought the crowd to its feet with a driving hit on No 8 Alex Shaw who was tackled into touch on halfway.
But Nottingham, whose first-half tactics consistently involved hoisting the ball in the air and waiting for mistakes by the home side, gradually began to exert therir authority.
And anywhere near to the line, the preferred option of Martin Haag's side was to ignore kickable penalties - even in the shadow of the posts - and go for the catch-and-drive which paid such rich dividends in a 63-7 back in November.
Bristol twice held firm, giving away penalties in the process. But after receiving a warning from referee David Rose, Nottingham then drove their way over the first try of the game in the 23rd minute through flanker and captain Brent Wilson, Arlidge converting.
Roberts was on target with a second penalty soon after, following a line-out offence. And Bristol then produced a strong spell of pressure, centre Fautua Otto twice causing havoc with signature muscular breaks, one of which should have produced a try for Luke Eves who knocked on 10 metres out with the line at his mercy.
Bristol then earned a big turnover some 30 metres out with some scrapping for the ball on the floor. And after going patiently through the phases from the resulting scrum, Ruki Tipuna chipped over a drop goal from ten metres out in front of the posts while Rose was playing penalty advantage to give his side a 9-7 lead.
The game continued to be riddled with mistakes – including a Nottingham not straight at a line-out 20 metres out, much to the home side's relief – as Bristol clung on to their advantage at the turnaround.
Nottingham changed tactics for the second period, keeping the ball in hand and probing for gaps in Bristol's armoury.
But the home side defended stoutly, with Redford Pennycook and Mama at the very heart of the action, before earning a straight 40 metre penalty which Roberts pulled to the left of the posts.
Concerted Bristol pressure then produced another penalty chance for the fly-half, this time 15 metres out in front of the posts which he made no mistake with.
The home side, though, switched off from the restart and a missed tackle on hooker Joe Duffey suddenly gave Shaw far too much room wide on the left before he released Wilson for his second try, Arlidge adding a superb touchline conversion to make it 14-12 to Nottingham.
Bristol soon had a chance to reclaim the lead, but Roberts snatched horribly at a 25-metre penalty on the hour.
And the visitors then rubbed salt into the wound by stretching their lead with a 15-metre penalty from Arlidge for offside in the 67th minute.
At this stage it was all Nottingham with winger Alex Lewington looking sharp and causing problems down the right. And after being obstructed by Jack Tovey, Arlidge landed another penalty to make it 20-12.
This time it was Bristol's turn to strike back immediately. George Watkins, receiving the ball just inside his own half, ran across the field before chipping over the defence and then half volleying the ball and then hacking it on towards the line.
The winger appeared to have lost the chase, but the ball hit a post protector and Watkins pounced for the touchdown, Roberts instantly converting to reduce the lead to a point.
However it was Arlidge who had the final word, making it five from five with a successful 22-metre effort before his side ran the clock down to complete a notable double.
Bristol: J Tovey; G Watkins, F Otto, L Eves, R Edwards; T Roberts, R Tipuna (J Grindal, 68); K Traynor (B Douglas, 68), R Johnston (R Lawrence, 74), W Thompson (G Cortes, 64), M Sambucetti (B Glynn, 64), G Townson, M Mama, R Pennycook (J Merriman, 74), M Eadie. Rep not used: M Jones.
Scorers: Try: Watkins. Pens: Roberts (3). Con: Roberts. Drop goal: Tipuna.
Nottingham: D Jackson; A Lewington, T Streather (J Cobden, 40), J Munro (A Forsyth, 63), R Hough; J Arlidge, S Romans; J Harris, J Duffey, M Holford (R Bower, 79), D Montagu, N Rouse, R Cooper (T Calladine, 78), B Wilson, A Shaw. Reps not used: S Malton, J Quinn, F Barnham.
Scorers: Try: Wilson (2). Cons: Arlidge (2). Pen: Arlidge (3).
Referee: David Rose.