Much has happened in the 14 months since Bristol’s returning supporters last watched their local heroes play live. The Bears are now top of the Premiership table and remain set fair for a home semi-final but, despite the cheerful presence of 3,128 excited fans, this bizarre contest served as a reminder that nothing in rugby can ever be wholly delivered to order.
Against opponents forced to play with reduced numbers for over an hour, Bristol were almost as wasteful as a broken sewage pipe for lengthy periods, contriving to cross the Gloucester line on eight occasions without managing to score a single try. The five tries the Bears did manage still proved enough to propel them 12 points clear of second-placed Sale but they could, and probably should, have rattled up 65 points.
The most glaring self-inflicted howler came when Charles Piutau was caught napping as he eased up in the in-goal area and had the ball knocked from his startled grasp. Amid the litany of dropped balls, forward passes and fractional knock-ons, however, the Bears can at least console themselves that when it comes to creating chances with rapier-like attacking rugby there is currently no-one to touch them.
Gloucester, who last won a league game in Bristol four years ago, could also take pride from their defiance in adversity, with the Lions winger Louis Rees-Zammit forced into emergency service at flanker. Ultimately, though, the best bit was the noise in the stands, a welcome indicator that post-Covid normality is finally starting to return.
There may only have been a reduced congregation but the noisy enthusiasm around the ground was still a genuine joy. Even the smell of burgers wafting from the stadium van felt delightfully decadent, a forbidden pleasure with extra onions. Some of the home fans had travelled from as far as north Wales, reflecting the levels of expectancy beginning to surround the Bears. Around 8,000 season tickets have already been sold for next season, by which time all connected with Bristol hope the club will have featured in this season’s Premiership final.
The PA announcer was almost in raptures: “Some of these players you haven’t seen in the flesh!” but the Bears faithful all knew what was coming.
After a couple of Callum Sheedy penalties they were duly treated to a stunning counter-attack instigated by Andy Uren, taken on by a surging Semi Radradra and, to the naked eye, expertly finished on a sharp angle by Kyle Sinckler. It was ruled out when Sinckler was adjudged to have lost control on his way down but the message of intent was unmistakeable.
Equally clear was the inevitable red card shown to a penitent Matías Alemanno after Steven Luatua was upended with the type of dangerous double tackle which has become thankfully rarer in recent times. When Val Rapava-Ruskin soon followed to the bin, reducing the visitors to 13 men, it appeared only a matter of time before Gloucester’s implosion began.
The Bears, though, seemed intent on finding assorted ways not to score until, finally the dam burst 12 minutes before the interval. Space opened up invitingly for the alert Sheedy and the fly-half’s reverse flick put Max Malins over for his latest high-class score. The classy England full-back has only spent a couple of club games on the wing but already looks entirely at home there.
The odds on Gloucester still being within a single score at the interval at that stage, were seriously long. Somehow, though, the Cherry and Whites continued to hang on, Twelvetrees’ fine kick to the corner setting up decent field position and a fine long ball allowing Santiago Carreras just enough space to squeeze into the left corner. Again it seemed unlikely to matter as another glorious Bristol attack ended with Charles Piutau sauntering over the line. For whatever reason, however, the full-back fatally relaxed and the retreating Kyle Moyle was able to dislodge the ball in the nick of time.
The same theme continued after the interval, a tiny fumble in the buildup cancelling out another potential score for Uren and a forward pass from Sheedy to Malins costing the Bears yet another try. It was almost a novelty act when Chris Vui broke clear and legitimately fed Piutau for a 54th minute score that brought some relief to the socially-distanced audience.
To even things up Willi Heinz then had a potential Cherry and Whites try ruled out for offside but overdue tries for Ben Earl, Nathan Hughes and Radradra eventually gave Bristol the last laugh.