Sensational comeback is tantalisingly out of reach
UNFORTUNATELY for Bristol, yesterday's allocation of sporting miracles was reserved exclusively for the blue half of Manchester's football divide.
Bristol – league leaders at the end of the 22-game regular season and with the best pool record of the eight play-off teams – needed to overturn a 21-point deficit to reach the final of the Championship after a calamitous final ten minutes in Penzance.
To their credit, Liam Middleton's team got to the final minute of yesterday's semi-final second leg just seven points – one converted try – adrift of Cornish Pirates on aggregate. But there was to be no stunning finish to rank alongside Jason Strange's drop-goal heroics against Gloucester on the same ground in 2006, as Rob Cook's late penalty took the tie, and any lingering promotion hopes, away from Bristol.
The best team over 28 games of regular-season and play-off pool action, Bristol again underlined their status as the Championship's top side yesterday. But the structure of the play-offs allows for an out-of-character ten-minute period to prove fatal – and that fate befell Bristol as they were made to pay the price for the late first-leg spell in which Pirates scored 19 unanswered points.
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Bristol took four of their try-scoring chances and spurned several others – but the semi-final was not lost on home soil, however frustrating those missed opportunities, not to mention some of the calls from referee Sean Davey, proved to be. For most of yesterday's game, Bristol did what they had to do, producing a result and performance which, in any other context, would have been deemed a worthy highlight of the season.
But, in the end, it meant nothing because one brief period six days earlier, where Bristol's defence went AWOL and Pirates scored three tries, undermined an entire season of improvement and development.
"What a great game – and we won a big match, we won a semi-final, but only one leg of it," said head coach Middleton. "Last week, we probably just gave ourselves a little bit too much to do. In saying that, there was enormous belief throughout the week from the players. I think that in itself is an exceptional feat, having faced the deficit that we had.
"To start to believe in the week that we could do it, I thought showed real mental toughness. But it was probably just one try too far last week."
The pragmatists, optimists and amateur philosophers will rightly point to the turnaround in fortunes of a team who finished eighth a year ago and were given little hope of making a mark on the play-offs this season.
But Bristol, after winning seven of their opening eight Championship fixtures, started to believe – not least when Steve Lansdown bought the club and the squad was bolstered by a series of mid-season signings.
Bristol missed an opportunity this season – and the fact it was an unexpected one does little to soften the blow, other than to suggest they will be better prepared for promotion to the Aviva Premiership should they achieve it in 12 or 24 months' time.
"With five minutes to play, we probably could still have won the tie, and we wouldn't be looking back on what happened in the first leg," added Middleton. "But we've had great support here, the club is moving in the right direction and we will be better suited next season."
Bristol began at a frantic pace yesterday – and stated their intentions to be confrontational before the game had even kicked off, with prop Jason Hobson squaring up to Alan Paver as the teams awaited kick-off.
Once they calmed down, they produced some highly impressive rugby; their opening try – which included the forward power of a line-out and the deft touch of Tristan Roberts' grubber to Jon Goodridge – being a case in point.
The key moment, arguably, came in the 14th minute, though, when Fautua Otto brilliantly raced clear, only to stumble a few metres short of the line. Bristol were unable to keep the move alive, when, had the Samoan scored, Pirates' lead would have been ten points with 66 minutes to play.
As it was, the visitors did just enough throughout the game to keep their heads above water. Cook's try on the counter-attack gave them breathing space – and, 24 points down overall at half-time, Bristol were staring down the barrel.
A penalty from Roberts and Goodridge's second try – scored after George Watkins handed off a defender – cut the deficit to 14 points, but Phil Burgess' try on the break again kept Pirates on top.
Bristol's rally arrived – but it came slightly too late. Otto broke and set up Watkins to score a third Bristol try, before replacement prop Mark Lilley's long, looping pass to Josh Ovens paved the way for Will Helu to score, cutting the gap to seven points with two minutes left. But Cook's last-gasp penalty ensured there would be no miracle on this occasion.