Friday September 17th heralded the start of the new Premiership Rugby season and Saracens first game back after their exile due to Salary Cap breaches; I’ve written all about that so I’m not going to comment further. As I drove the 4 hours it took me to reach Bristol I wasn’t sure what to expect either on or off the pitch.
It’s almost as if Premiership Rugby couldn’t have picked a better set of fans for us Saracens fans to be amongst. I met, by chance some of the clubs’ sponsors, Blackstar Solutions before going to the ground, they could not have been friendlier! I was then sat on my own amongst season ticket holders and felt totally welcome. Ashton Gate is an impressive stadium, even more so with 19,000 rugby fans inside. The Bears have 10,000 season ticket holders, including many young ones, I learnt that season tickets for Under 12’s start at £60 and stretch to just £165 for the very best seats. That tickets comes with a free shirt, which in itself is clever marketing: I was sat next to a family with 2 sons, one under 12, the older son couldn’t be without a shirt! The people around me chatted throughout the game and were good humoured.
On to the rugby, Saracens were without all of their Lions, Alex Goode and Max Malins to mention a few, Bristol were missing Semi Radrada to name a very high profile player. I was disappointed not to be seeing Radrada live, in particular, but excited to be watching Charles Piutau.
A quick look at a couple of the new laws for 2021/22. As a rugby league fan I’m very used to the 40/20 law and was looking forward to seeing how the equivalent 50/22 might work in this other code; when the ball is kicked from within your own 50, if it bounces out in the opposition 22 the kicking team is rewarded with the line out. It’s a rare occurrence in league, but union players tend to be more skilful kickers. Another new law that could’ve come from the 13 man game is the Goal Line Drop Out, If the ball is held up over the try-line or there is a knock-on from an attacking player in-goal or an attacking kick is grounded by the defenders behind their try-line, then play restarts with a goal line drop-out anywhere along the goal line.
The match itself was not an entertaining spectacle for the neutral, amongst Saracens returning players was Alex Lozowski in the 10 shirt for Saracens, he had a successful year away with Montpellier, helping them win the European Challenge Cup: Ben Earl who’d impressed the Bristol fans and Nick Isekwie back from Northampton Saints. Nick Tompkins had returned in time for a couple of Championship games having spent time in Wales. We had kick tennis rugby for far too long a spell, whether that was an attempt to achieve a 50/22 I don’t know, but it didn’t happen and it wasn’t entertaining stuff. Watching back it’s interesting to hear Wayne Barnes shouting ‘inside the 50’ numerous times. 4 minutes into the re-run and Lawrence Dallaglio is already annoying me, he’s making it sound as if Saracens have been out of Premiership Rugby for 10 years!
The first half was a cagey affair, with errors on both sides, Piutau had one exciting run, getting the ball away to Harry Thacker who found Andy Uren then Ioan Lloyd out on the wing, but he was stopped by Elliot Obatoyinbo helped out by Billy Vunipola: The Saracens defence worked hard all evening to subdue this exciting team; the Wolfpack were definitely back! It was a concern to me that Rotimi Segun was always first to Nathan Hughes from the kick off, the difference in size is huge, but, the speedy winger dealt well with the Bristol 8 every time. It was great to see Kelly Brown on the touchline and really interesting to see him speaking to BT during the game, quite remarkable for a man who’s suffered with a stammer all of his life.
We had a lesson in goal kicking in this match, with both Callum Sheedy and Alex Lozowski impressing, they both missed a kick in the first half, but the 3 they both kicked successfully were challenging. The teams went in on 9 apiece at half time.
I’d be lying if I said we were royally entertained in the second half, and lo, now Austin Healey thinks Saracens were in the Championship for 10 years, ‘you don’t learn this in the Championship” I may struggle with the BT commentary this season. Saracens took the lead early in the second half and actually didn’t concede another point. A key moment, if it can be called that, was when Bristol actually kicked for the corner and went for 17 phases before Thacker dropped the ball in a tackle. The Saracens defence was impenetrable.
Bristol conceded a further 4 kickable penalties and Lozowski was immaculate taking his team to a 12 point lead. It’s rare for a game to be without controversy and the officials checked a double tackle by Alec Clarey and Tom Woolstencroft; a ref link would’ve been very useful to understand why the tackle by Woolstencroft wasn’t a problem, must take my ref link next time! The home crowd were not happy, but listening after the fact a proper process was followed.
There are some sportsmen who play their game of choice with a look on their face that almost suggests they can’t believe how lucky they are; Dean Elgar the South African cricketer is one who comes to my mind, Richard Barrington for Saracens is another. we were treated to another piece of magic by Charles Piutau, he was stopped by a very opportune arm thrown out by Barrington, a try saver without a doubt. Piutau was substituted not long after, he didn’t get a try during this game, but he will score tries aplenty I have no doubt.
Saracens second half domination was rewarded with a try, (hallelulah!) at last, with Man of the Match Lozowski chipping a kick through to Alex Lewington, he gathered the ball to go over for the only try of the game. It was weird, yet great to see Joe Simpson come on in a Saracens shirt, on loan for a month, he’s been one of my favourite players for years!
The final score was Bristol Bears 9 Saracens 26, the visitors doing what they needed to do to get the job done. Bristol will no doubt shine again this season, they have some absolute talent in their team, including Harry Thacker, another favourite. Saracens have a rest week up next, which will, I’m sure be very welcome, most of their players looked out on their feet. Bristol travel to Coventry to play Wasps.
The photos aren’t great quality, but some colour to brighten things up!