For the third mad March date in four seasons, Jersey Reds took on and defeated the unbeaten leaders of the Greene King IPA Championship.
After Worcester Warriors and London Irish were unseated on trips to the Island, this time it was an away win. There were more than 8,000 supporters at Ashton Gate (the largest crowd to ever see a Jersey match), the majority of them frustrated and bewildered as their Bristol team's attempt to gain a club record 17th straight league win hit the skids.
As with the most recent away win at Bedford, but against a side still surely destined for promotion to the Aviva Premiership, the Reds scored five tries to their hosts' four in another high-scoring thriller. The win was founded on more teak-tough defence, discipline at the breakdown and at the set piece - two late yellow cards excepted - and a determination to make the most of their chances.
After a sombre start to proceedings, with an impeccably-observed silence to pay tribute to Doncaster Knights prop Ian Williams, who died during a training session last week, the match began in spring-like sunshine on a playing surface that had held up well to recent adverse weather.
The hosts started very strongly and successive penalty awards enabled them to set a platform for a catch-and-drive. A third penalty was set to be awarded, but while advantage was played All Black international Steve Luatua crashed over. It was to prove the flanker's last meaningful contribution as he hobbled off with a knee injury soon afterwards.
Young Bristol scrum-half Andy Uren had a torrid afternoon against a rampaging Reds' side, and twice his attempted clearances were charged down by Jersey's Jake Woolmore. A loose ball proved impossible for the home side to deal with, the Reds turned it over and the ball was quickly fed to Scott van Breda for the equalising score.
Irish international fly-half Ian Madigan slotted a penalty but then the visitors regained the lead from a powerful maul - again it was stopped illegally but a try was claimed while advantage was being played, Jerry Sexton barging over from close range.
Sale Piutua set up the home side's second try, feeding Alapati Leiua for the score that got his side back in front, but almost directly from the kick-off the lead changed hands for the sixth and final time. When the ball came untidily out of a Bristol breakdown, only two people reacted - referee Tempest making the 'ball's out' signal and Jersey's Nick Selway throwing himself at the loose ball. The hooker quickly found Kieran Hardy who sprinted through for his seventh league try of the season.
Madigan reduced the 17-21 arrears to a single point with a penalty, but by half-time Jersey were a man up and seven points further ahead: Piutau was adjudged to have tackled Tom Pincus in the air after the wing soared for another spectacular aerial catch, and soon afterwards the forwards set the platform for another try for van Breda.
There were no further scores as Piutua's sin-bin period ticked down after the resumption, but the home side were trying to get back into the contest, however skipper Tusi Pisi was over-ambitious inside his own half and a pass to free men outside him was picked off by Pincus who strolled over for his 10th Championship try of the season.
Barely believably, the blue-shirted Reds were 15 ahead, but soon afterwards had only 14 men on the field when Woolmore's superb contribution ended with a yellow card for cynically stopping quick ball as Bristol pressed. The sacrifice looked worth it for the visitors - not only did they clear their lines, but they crossed halfway and won a penalty, stroked over by Cope to complete a perfect afternoon's work from the tee and make it 20-38.
Replacement scrum-half Rhodri Williams had been introduced for the unfortunate Uren after just 34 minutes, and the Welshman rewarded his side with a try from a well-worked lineout move just before the sin-bin period ended.
Two more scores in 10 minutes looked possible for the dynamic but ruffled Bristol back line, but the Reds held firm until the dying stages. Jack Macfarlane became the second visiting player to be yellow-carded and then Sam Jeffries cantered over in the corner for Bristol's fourth try. This claimed a brace of bonus points, but most worryingly for Jersey the referee allowed the game to continue, his watch and the stadium's big screen clock - which stopped during breaks in play and showed 80 minutes before the Jeffries' try - were out of synch.
The 'extra time' could have led to a winning score for Bristol, who attacked from deep and then managed to regain possession after a pass was taken by Jersey hands. Madigan saw acres of space on the right and kicked across, but the bounce defeated his chasing colleague and Kieran Hardy was able to claim it and kick the ball out to end a breathless match, and seal the Island side's first win over Bristol in 10 Championship attempts.
The Reds players now have a well-deserved week off before resuming training ahead of the next match, a Championship visit to London Scottish on Friday March 16th. This will be followed by successive home matches at Stade Santander International: Rotherham Titans in the league on Saturday March 24th, and Doncaster Knights in the B&I Cup quarter-final on Good Friday, March 30th - both home games kick off at 3pm.
Bristol Rugby: J Williams; Morahan, Piutau (YC 38), Pisi (c), Leiua; Madigan, Uren (R Williams 34); Tonga’uiha (O’Connell 54), Harris-Wright (Fenton-Wells 54), Cortes (Lay 54), Jeffries, Latta, Luatua (Joyce 8), Lam, Haining (Thomas 14-22, 50).
Unused replacement: Sheedy.
Jersey Reds: Van Breda (co-capt), Pincus, Ma'afu (Dudley 67), Best (Eastwell 62), Worrall, Cope, Hardy; Woolmore (co-capt) (YC 62), Selway (Macfarlane 54, YC77), Armstrong (Clarey 71), Sexton (Kolo'ofa'I 46), Voss, Bartle (Godfrey 64), Joyce, Argyle.
Unused replacement: Upfield.
REFEREE: Ian Tempest. Assistants: Rob Warburton, Dean Richards
Half Time: 20-28
Tries: Luatua 3, Leuia 28, R Williams 68, Jeffries 79
Conversions: Madigan 3, 28, 68, 79
Penalties: Madigan 20, 36
Tries: Van Breda 10, 40, Sexton 25, Hardy 31, Pincus 53
Conversions: Cope 10, 25, 31, 40, 53
Penalty: Cope 62
23 Mar 2023
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