Bristol draw with Sale in Champions Cup qualification race

Bristol Bears laid down their marker in game one of this season’s Gallagher Premiership, with a home derby win over Bath back in August, 2018. Now, in their final home game, Pat Lam’s ultimate target of Champions Cup rugby could be taken seriously. Although, the Friday night match at Ashton Gate saw Bristol draw with Sale 20-20, to leave them needing several results to go their way on the final day.

In their last home game of the season, a crowd pushing 20,000 arrived with expectation now Premiership-safety was secured. This city clearly wants a Premiership Rugby team, and it’s starting to look like they might end up with a very good one.

While it took the Bears a while to get going in the season, which sees them now sitting in the Top Ten. Admittedly, it took them a while to get into this fixture but, a draw against rivals Sale proves they are here to stay.

Bristol Bears 20 Sale Sharks 20

The early exchanges were conducted within the two 22m lines. Noise levels rose when the likes of Charles Piutau collected the ball but they were shortly silenced when Denny Solomona picked off a Callum Sheedy pass to run in under the posts. Sale then were able to get the ball through hands and earned another three points from an AJ MacGinty penalty.

A period of kick-tennis followed with the Sharks management becoming increasingly animated at the sub-par execution. The Bears were unable to get going and the ‘run-from-everywhere’ tactic was suspiciously absent. Handling and passing accuracy was also amiss, with Dan Thomas knocking on a brilliant turnover opportunity.

It took Bristol over 25 minutes to get their backline going, eventually drawing a high tackle on Thomas. Referee Carley advanced the penalty 10m after a scuffle allowing Sheedy to kick to the corner. The sizeable crowd came alive, which is certainly a noticeable occurrence. Bristol hammered on the line through their forwards, again using unfamiliar tactics. They eventually went wide and Sheedy fed Piutau to cross. Two penalties were traded leaving the half time score 13-10 to the visitors. 

Second half challenge sees Bristol earn a draw

It was all set up for a tense second half with a top six place on the line, but Sale extended their lead almost immediately. A break down the left put de Klerk away on the 22m for an unopposed run-in. The conversion was good and the lead was ten points again.

But Bristol do not know when they’re defeated.

They struck back straight away with through Alapati Leiua, with the TMO awarding a tight touchdown in the corner. This was where the tide started to turn. The volume was turned up several levels and the crowd sensed something.

With just over ten minutes to go, they thought they had it when Leiua ran untouched through the Sale half to the jubilation of the crowd. However a clash between Chris Ashton and Sheedy, that left the Sale winger with his shirt over his head meant the try was ruled out.

Bristol draw with Sale: Implications for Champions Cup Qualification 

Sale Sharks arrived sitting in that precious sixth place with four sides chasing them down. Their cause wasn’t helped by a last minute withdrawal from Luke James causing a backline reshuffle. But establishing a 10-0 lead and unsettling the large home crowd was the ideal catalyst for the Sharks.

The early tries in the second half cranked up the tension befitting the prize on the line. By the last quarter we had another fascinating Gallagher Premiership match likely to be settled by one score. Pat Lam had taken up his place pitchside, whilst Steve Diamond could be increasingly seen issuing instructions into his mic.

The two top men had not even seen the half of it. Ian Madigan, the hero against Saracens, had two chances to repeat his trick but his kicks drifted wide from either side of the posts. Still Sale had the chance to win it, but de Klerk hit the post with a penalty at the other end.

Post-match reaction

Speaking after the match, Sale Director of Rugby Steve Diamond reluctantly admitted he was happy with the result.

“We had a couple of chances to win it, and they did. Overall probably a fair result in the end. I don’t think we got what we deserved at the breakdown. The D [defence] was very good. One of their big threats we identified was Harry Thacker as a key threat and we never saw him in the game because we wrapped him up.

I thought it was an entertaining game, the effort was fantastic, just our game management was poor. There were two times when we know Bristol play out the 22 and we gave two easy penalties away. This just took the pressure off them and that’s what we’ve got to learn”.

Speaking of tonight’s tactics, Diamond explained: “Bristol don’t kick the ball off the field a lot; they kick it down the field.  We wanted to engage them in a kicking game and we did. I thought in the first 30 minutes of the game we were outstanding”.

Looking ahead to the implications on Champions Cup qualification, Diamond said: “We’ve got another route because we got to the semi-final of the Challenge Cup. If La Rochelle finish in the top six we get a route that way into the Champions Cup. But we want to do it on our own volition in the league and I think it’s everything to play for against Gloucester”.

“Flat feeling” for Pat Lam

Head coach Pat Lam said: “The Feeling’s flat. But two points is better than no points. We desperately wanted that four though. I can’t fault the effort of the guys, it was huge but frustrating. We wanted to start well and we had to play a certain way, they have an unbelievable defence and put 13 in the line”.

“We had chances to win the game. Probably the last play of the game summed up the character of this group. We played and played and got right down to the corner. There’s a few things in there we have to look at”.

Unsurprisingly Lam was unhappy with the disallowed Leiua try: “Everyone’s talking about it downstairs. It doesn’t make sense to me that Ashton decided to take himself out of the game. It’s not our fault the Sale player has taken himself out the game. It makes no sense to give us the penalty if you’re giving us a penalty but not the try because we didn’t start it”.


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