Rarely will the Wanderers have such control of a half yet come away without the final victory. But a lack of control around the fringes while trying to kill the contest off in the final minutes became manna to the Championship leaders, who quickly turned defence into attack to score the winning try.
Charlie Amesbury had already shown the danger he could pose a couple of times in the contest, and the former Harlequin’s opportunism in scooping up a wayward Rory Hutchinson pass out of contest was rewarded when the supporting Luke Eves volleyed a pass inside for replacement Elias Cavan to dive into the in-goal area.
The reactions of the two teams told the whole story. Bristol were jubilant, the Wanderers dejected, and lock Alex Woolford acknowledged that they had done themselves no favours in either half.
“It’s bitterly disappointing,” he told SaintsTV. “We were on the bounce from another disappointing game in Worcester. We tried to right a few wrongs from that game, but the first half ruined it for us tonight.
“We weren’t physical enough in defence or attack and although we were still in touching distance
going into the break they had all the intensity and we lacked it quite a bit.
“We came out all guns blazing in the second half and got ourselves into the position to win it, but we weren’t quite clinical enough, especially in their 22, and that’s what cost us the game.”
Given what was to follow it was easy to forget that the game opened with a sensational Wanderers try with just three minutes on the clock, in which superb interplay was finished when Howard Packman dived onto Dom Waldouck’s neat grubber.
And there were positives, too, with Jamie Elliott, Tom Stephenson, Tom Mercey and Ben Nutley all getting plenty of game time on their first starts for some time, and new boy Joel Hodgson looking sharp on his Gardens debut in black, green and gold.
But the hosts failed to build on their start, with Bristol flankers Olly Robinson and Nick Koster crashing over from close range for a try apiece and Jack Tovey snatching an interception during an attempted Wanderers attack from deep to give the visitors a 21-13 lead going into the break.
Woolford’s honesty was admirable about how the second half went, not least as the hosts made the most of a pair of yellow cards to twice drive over from attacking line outs, Teimana Harrison coming up with the ball both times.
Harry Mallinder’s two touchline conversions added to Will Hooley’s first half eight-point haul to give the Wanderers a 27-24 lead, and given how they had the better of the territory after the break the win this would have brought would have been decent reward.
But Bristol upped their game on the back foot, hustling the hosts into making that final, crucial mistake.
3mins WAND Try Packman Con Hooley 7-0
12mins BRIS Try Koster Con Cooke 7-7
17mins WAND Pen Hooley 10-7
20mins BRIS Try Robinson Con Cooke 10-14
25mins WAND Pen Hooley 13-14
26mins BRIS Try Tovey Con Cooke 13-21
39mins BRIS Miss pen Cooke
HALF-TIME WANDERERS 13 BRISTOL 21
42mins BRIS Yellow card Townson
42mins WAND Try Harrison Con Mallinder 20-21
49mins WAND Miss pen Mallinder
65mins BRIS Pen Cooke 20-24
68mins BRIS Yellow card Genge
69mins WAND Try Harrison Con Mallinder 27-24
80mins BRIS Try Caven Con Cooke 27-31
FULL-TIME WANDERERS 27 BRISTOL 31