Bristol Rugby Secure B&I Semi-Final Spot
Bristol Rugby 29-19 Ayr RFC
Bristol Rugby sealed a place in the British & Irish semi-finals with an entertaining 29-19 victory over Ayr at the Memorial Stadium. Tries from Jack Gadd, George Watkins and two from James Merriman were enough to see off a spirited Ayr second-half fightback.
Both sides received two sin-bins apiece in a clash brimming with attacking intent and defensive mishaps. Mark Irish and Mariano Sambucetti saw yellow either side of half time, while Paul Burke and Andy Dunlop were carded for the visitors.
The hosts enjoyed superior possession during the opening exchanges and the first real opportunity fell to Ed Barnes, who saw his long-range penalty drift wide of the upright. The deadlock was broken on the eight minute mark after several phases in the Ayr 22. With Bristol’s pack in imperious form, Jack Gadd collected a pass to thunder his way over from six metres. Ed Barnes missed the angled conversion attempt so the score remained 5-0.
Paul Hull will have been delighted to see the set-piece working so effectively and the fine conditions gave the Bristol backline ample opportunity to play flowing, expansive rugby. Bristol’s second try was a prime example of this - James Merriman going over after a superb jinking run from winger Anthony Elliott. Ed Barnes struck a simple conversion to extend the lead to 12-0.
In a dominant first half-hour, Bristol continued to lay siege to the Ayr tryline. Jack Adams, Iain Grieve and Anthony Elliott all made line-breaks in quick succession, only to be thwarted by a determined opposition defence. Ayr’s problems worsened when flanker Paul Burke was sin-binned for infringement.
However, the visitors reduced the arrears after Cammy Taylor pounced on a defensive mix-up to bundle over in the corner to make the score 12-5. Ross Curle couldn’t convert the extras but Hull will be smarting at a lapse in concentration that allowed Ayr back into the game. Buoyed by that try, Ayr created some excellent openings of their own, Mark Stewart engineering a gap with a powerful burst through the midfield. But they were made to pay for their ill-discipline, Andy Dunlop seeing yellow to reduce Ayr to 13 men. The Bristol forwards capitalised immediately after James Merriman added the finishing touches to a formidable rolling maul. Ed Barnes slotted the extras to increase the lead to 19-5.
Ayr finished the first-half with a flourish, launching a potent attack down the outside channel. In an attempt to halt their progress, Mark Irish was sin-binned at the breakdown. Ross Curle’s unsuccessful penalty attempt signalled the end of an entertaining first period which had seen four tries and three yellow cards.
Bristol started the second half with a bang; George Watkins racing over within fifteen seconds of the restart as the Ayr defence were caught napping. Ed Barnes kicked the conversion to make the score 26-5.
Ayr hit back with a barnstorming attack of their own; Steve Manning smashing his way over after superb handling skills by the visitors. Ross Curle kicked the conversion to cut the deficit to 26-10, but not before a lengthy pause after Iain Grieve suffered a head injury. The Bristol captain rose groggily to his feet to continue. Any supporters concerned for Grieve’s state of health needn’t have worried - the flanker executed a crunching tackle straight from the restart.
Ayr continued to provide headaches for Bristol and the ever-dangerous Robbie Ferguson darted through several tackles before the hosts scrambled the ball clear. Bristol’s first-half fluency was fading although Mark Davies, on for the injured Jack Gadd, tried to inject some much-needed urgency with a series of intelligent kicks. But Bristol’s poor discipline reared its head once more, Mariano Sambucetti on the end of a sin-binning this time, the fourth yellow-card of the game.
The visitors were now in full control and Bristol will have been relieved to clear their lines after being camped in their own 22 for a long period. Ayr’s sustained pressure almost paid dividends again only for Steve Manning to spill Ross Curle’s delicate cross-field kick with the tryline gaping. But seconds later Robbie Ferguson set up a nervy final ten minutes, rounding the last defender to slide over. Ross Curle slotted the conversion and Ayr had clawed themselves back to within seven points.
Ed Barnes replied with a well-taken penalty to give Bristol some breathing space at 29-19 as Paul Hull’s team held on to book a place in B&I semi-finals and record their eighth win in nine games.
Jack Tovey; Anthony Elliott, Jack Adams, Jack Gadd, George Watkins; Ed Barnes, Richard Bolt; Mark Irish, Ross Johnston, Darren Crompton, Mariano Sambucetti, Roy Winters, Iain Grieve, James Merriman, Dan Montagu.
Replacements: David Blaney (for Ross Johnston, 75), Wayne Thompson (for James Merriman, 39), Darren Barry (for Mariano Sambucetti, 71), Jamie Miller (for Dan Montagu, 75), Robbie Shaw (for Richard Bolt, 51) , Mark Davies (for Jack Gadd, 53), Sean Marsden. (reversal – Merriman returns for Crompton, 49)
Chris Mckeand; Steve Manning, Robbie Ferguson, Mark Stewart, Cammy Taylor; Ross Curle, A J McFarlane; Gordon Reid, Stephen Adair, Andrew Kelly, Scott Sutherland, Damien Kelly ©, Robbie Colhoun, Paul Burke, Andy Dunlop.
Replacements: Gordon Sykes (for Gordon Reid, 75), Jenz Robinson (for Stephen Adair, 80) Glen Tippett (for Andy Dunlop, 80), Dean Stewart (for Scott Sutherland, 77), Steven Longwell (for Andrew Kelly, 80), Ross Aitken (for Steve Manning, 80), Ross Samson (for AJ McFarlane 40).
Referee: Neil Hennessey