Chaos and Euphoria at The Gate
Utter euphoria swept across the stands as Irish international Ian Madigan slotted his eightieth-minute penalty to grasp victory from the cold claws of defeat, and potentially save Pat Lam’s men from another year of relegation.
In a week marred by the off-field drama of Israel Folau’s homophobic social media exploits and subsequent defending of said posts by England and Saracens number eight Billy Vunipola, Saracens appeared equally out of kilter within their on-field performance in a dramatic afternoon in the West Country.
Making the trip West to travel to for a trip to Ashton Gate, the home of Pat Lam’s Bristol Bears, the currently infamous Vunipola accepted a bench role in this round nineteen clash alongside fellow England internationals Jamie George, Maro Itoje, Ben Spencer and Alex Lozowski; with South Africa’s Vincent Koch and uncapped England flanker Ben Earl also in attendance.
Vunipola’s off-field antics looked to have affected more than just the workload of Saracens’ media team, with the relatively weakened starting XV putting in a performance that was a far cry from the efficiency we have come to expect from the reigning champions.
Bristol profited from no less than five spoiled Saracens lineouts within the first-half alone, with Mark McCall’s men also conceding three penalties at scrum time. A scything Max Malins break and subsequent Tom Whitley supporting line and score would be the only points the visitors registered by the time Thomas Foley blew for half-time, with Bristol fly-half Callum Sheedy kicking two penalties from four attempts for a slim 6-7 lead for the visitors.
Oft a figure of great popularity within English rugby, Vunipola’s 50th-minute arrival was met by a vibrating chorus of boos from the Ashton Gate crowd. At the warm-up, during a scuffle five metres out from the Bristol line and in the moments following Marcelo Bosch’s 55th-minute score, the younger of England’s Vunipola siblings painted a solitary figure, plainly keen to keep it strictly business following Friday’s social media frenzy.
Amongst the fervent reaction to Vunipola’s arrival, Saracens also introduced England men Jamie George, Maro Itoje and Ben Earl. Substitutions that would swing momentum in Sarries' favour after a far from efficient opening fifty minutes. A try from a Sarries maul courtesy of the popular Argentinian, Bosch, saw Sarries regain their lead lost following a breakaway score from All Black flanker Steve Luatua in the 45th minute, with Alex Goode slotting the conversion for a 13-14 lead with 23 minutes left on the clock.
Despite playing with fourteen men once Bristol hooker Harry Thacker was shown yellow at a Sarries maul proceeding Bosch’s eventual score, Bristol stole the lead following a break from All Black tighthead prop John Afoa from 30 metres out. With the move finished by Welsh openside Dan Thomas and the conversion duly slotted by Callum Sheedy, the home side went into a six-point lead with just 25 minutes to go. Bristol 20, Saracens 14.
McCall’s men quickly turned to their power game through the mammoth figures of Itoje, Vunipola and powerful young England lock Nick Isiekwe, resulting in a 68th minute try for reserve loosehead Ralph Adams-Hale to take back a narrow one-point lead at 20-21 for the visitors; with follow-up boos for Billy Vunipola to mark each of his six colossal carries for the afternoon.
Palpable pressure filled 'The Gate' during the final ten minutes of the Premiership clash, with a potentially season-defining, and season-saving, victory a mere finger's reach away.
The drama preceding Bristol’s clash was matched in equally theatrical fashion by the time Foley blew his final whistle, with Saracens number eight Jackson Wray conceding a penalty at the breakdown an agonising ten seconds to go.
Silence ensues, heart beats race and all eyes are on Irish international fly-half Ian Madigan. Utter euphoria sweeps across the stands as the diminuite standoff slots his eightieth-minute penalty to grasp victory from the cold claws of defeat, and potentially save Pat Lam’s men from another year of relegation. No side has ever been relegated with 40-points to their name, a mark Lam's charges have now surpassed, sitting on 41 points.
Wins against the ferociously organised and ominously powerful Saracens don’t come often for sides standing within arms distance of the drop. Truly, one of the results of the season and one for the Bears’ history books.