Rotherham Titans 22 Bristol Rugby 21
Spirited fightback sees Bristol almost snatch victory after poor start
BRISTOL came within touching distance of a sixth straight win – after fighting back from a 22-0 half-time deficit with an impressive second-half display.
Head coach Paul Hull, who made 11 changes to the team that defeated Plymouth Albion six days earlier, admitted his side had been poor during the opening 40 minutes at Clifton Lane.
But he was left bemoaning the fact the match did not last five minutes longer after watching his team turn things around after the break and leave Rotherham hanging on in the closing minutes.As a result of this defeat, Bristol finished eighth in the Championship table and will face Worcester, London Welsh and Nottingham in Pool A of the promotion play-offs.
And Hull said: “We had some very harsh words at half-time, because that first-half display was poor – it was ill-disciplined and we made too many errors. There was a one-way message at half-time – and the guys responded very well. I think if there was an extra five minutes on the clock we’d have won the game.”
Bristol got off to a disastrous start when, after only 20 seconds, acting skipper Sean Marsden’s clearance kick was charged down inside his own 22 and the ball fell invitingly to Rotherham No 8, Ryan Burrows, who dived over. Juan-Pablo Socino made no mistake with the conversion to give his side a 7-0 lead.
Bristol were still trying to find their rhythm when the Yorkshiremen struck again, five minutes later. Rotherham kept the ball in play after Bristol had kicked for touch – and the hosts ran it back with purpose, Pete Swatkins making the initial break, before offloading to Sean Dougall, and then receiving the return pass when the flanker was tackled. Swatkins went over in the corner for a 12-0 lead, with Socino missing the conversion attempt from a narrow angle.
Bristol tried to rally, but on a sticky pitch and with a muddy ball, they regularly put down passes at crucial times as Rotherham bossed the opening exchanges. Home flanker Sam Robinson was penalised for not releasing the ball when the hosts broke into the Bristol 22 again – but it was not long before they extended their lead.
Socino’s kick was on its way to touch, but Anthony Elliott, in trying to keep the ball in play, had the final touch and Rotherham gained a line-out on the 22. Darren Barry was penalised for pulling down the line-out – and Socino made no mistake to kick his team into a 15-0 lead.
Worse was to come shortly before half-time, when Burrows broke through the Bristol defence and shipped the ball to Dougall, who, in turn, found Jonny Hepworth to add a third Rotherham try. Socino converted to give the Titans a 22-0 half-time lead. Whatever Hull and his coaches said during the interval worked, though, as Bristol responded positively after half-time.
They were the better side almost from the off, doing to Rotherham what the hosts had done to them in the opening period by taking control of the key areas of the game. George Watkins provided the initial breakthrough for Bristol, holding off a couple of tackles to score after several well-worked phases had followed a line-out, after replacement fly-half Mark Davies kicked to touch from a penalty. Davies added the conversion for 22-7.
Bristol went close from another line-out, only being denied by a knock-on as the line beckoned, as they upped the ante and forced Rotherham back into their own territory for prolonged spells. Despite their improvement throughout the second period, Bristol still seemed unlikely victors – but they gave the hosts some food for thought when adding a second try eight minutes from the end. From the scrum that followed the Bristol knock-on, Socino attempted to clear, only for his effort to be charged down and the ball to sit up for flanker Jonathan Brandling-Harris to dive over for his first Bristol try.
Rotherham threatened to strike back and enjoyed a sustained period in Bristol territory. But, in trying to find a team-mate, Socino inadvertently threw the ball to Davies, who flicked a lovely pass inside to Anthony Elliott, who raced away to score a superb opportunist try. Davies again converted to reduce the deficit to a single point with a couple of minutes of injury-time to play.
But, although Bristol again ran at the Rotherham defence, they were eventually penalised for not releasing the ball and the home side held on for the narrowest of victories.
Rotherham Titans: C Hodgson; P Swatkins, J Hepworth, B Godfrey (M James 46), S James; J-P Socino, M Rhodes (capt); J Kilbane (M George 61), D Baines, C Quigley (R O’Donnell 51), J Sandford, A Smidt (A Loney 80), S Dickinson (L McGowan 46), S Dougall, R Burrows. Reps not used: J Bedford, W Durandt.
Scorers: Tries – Burrows, Swatkins, Hepworth. Cons – Socino (2). Pen – Socino.
Bristol: S Marsden; A Elliott, J Adams, J Gadd (M Eadie 77), G Watkins; N Little (M Davies 41), R Shaw (S Alford 59); M Vunipola (J Hobson 51), D Blaney, W Thompson, M Sambucetti (R Winters 67), D Barry, J Brandling-Harris (D Montagu 73), J Miller, M Mama. Rep not used: D Crompton.
Scorers: Tries – Watkins, Brandling-Harris, Elliott. Cons – Davies (3).
Referee: P Knowles.