Thomas Waldrom’s try three minutes from time broke Bristol hearts and earned Exeter Chiefs a crucial win in their fight to reach the Premiership semi-finals.
In an incredible match in which the lead changed hands several times, bottom side Bristol picked up their first try bonus point of the season.
But their defence, which had been immense for long periods, was breached by Waldrom at the death to deny them the victory that would have closed the gap on Worcester to only five points, with three matches remaining.
Bristol captain Marc Jones, who felt aggrieved with the display of referee Tom Foley, said: “We are bitterly disappointed because we felt we put enough into the game to win.
“We came down here with a plan, which we executed, and we can be proud of our efforts, but effort alone doesn’t get you across the line.
“I would like to see the penalty count and that is probably the biggest disappointment for us.
“We have gained one point on Worcester over the weekend, and whether that is enough for us, only time will tell, but if we put in performances like this over our last three games, there is no reason why we shouldn’t get a couple of wins.”
Exeter picked up worrying knee injuries to locks Mitch Lees and Jonny Hill, but head coach Rob Baxter was not too critical of his side.
“I think, physically, we committed to the game really well, but we weren’t quite as sharp as we needed to be mentally, with our mistakes leading to soft points, but credit Bristol, who capitalised on every single moment that came their way.”
Exeter winger Olly Woodburn took only 70 seconds to score after finishing off a break by Ian Whitten, with England’s Henry Slade converting.
Bristol stormed back with two interception tries from Will Hurrell and Jason Woodward in the space of nine minutes, and two conversions and a penalty by Gavin Henson put them 17-7 up.
A third converted try, by the excellent Henson, to a Slade penalty, made it 24-10 to the visitors, but Exeter grabbed a try in first-half injury time – a first of the season for former England lock Geoff Parling, converted superbly by Slade – to keep them in it at the break.
They started the second half as they had the first, with a converted try inside the first minute by Whitten to level the scores, and when Waldrom finished off a catch-and-drive in the 53rd minute, and Slade added the extras, Exeter led 31-24.
Bristol responded with a Henson penalty and his conversion of Mitch Eadie’s touchdown, to lead by three points, and that looked like being enough for victory until Waldrom crashed over for his ninth Premiership try of the season.
Exeter: P Dollman, J Nowell (M Campagnaro 60), I Whitten, O Devoto (G Steenson 60), O Woodburn, H Slade, J Maunder (S Townsend 68), B Moon (C Rimmer 52), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 77), H Williams (G Holmes 52), M Lees (G Parling 39), J Hill (D Ewers 43), D Dennis, D Armand (capt), T Waldrom.
Bristol: J Woodward, R Edwards, W Hurrell, G Henson, J Tovey, B Searle, A Mathewson (R Williams 60), R Bevington (J O’Connell 36), M Jones (capt) (M Crumpton 56), G Cortes (J Ford-Robinson ht), J Phillips (B Glynn 67), M Sorenson, S Jeffries, J Lam (N Fenton-Wells 12), M Eadie.
Replacements not used: J Newey, C Amesbury.
Referee:T Foley (RFU).
Scoring sequence: 5-0 Woodburn try; 7-0 Slade con; 7-5 Hurrell try; 7-7 Henson con; 7-10 Henson pen; 7-15 Woodward try; 7-17 Henson con; 10-17 Slade pen; 10-22 Henson try; 10-24 Henson con; 15-24 Parling try; 17-24 Slade con; 22-24 Whitten try; 24-24 Slade con; 29-24 Waldrom try; 31-24 Slade con; 31-27 Henson pen 31-32 Eadie try; 31-34 Henson con; 36-34 Waldrom try; 38-34 Steenson con.