Bristol 26 Leicester Tigers 26
Bristol Bears came up just short of a thrilling comeback victory after eclipsing a 14-point deficit to register a draw with Leicester Tigers.
Francois van Wyk’s red card was the catalyst for an unlikely revival from the hosts, with Ellis Genge and Gabriel Ibitoye also influential. Indebted to a fine display from fit-again centre Dan Kelly, Steve Borthwick’s team had been 26-12 in front with just 15 minutes remaining.
However, Bristol mounted an electric response and could even have snatched a win, only for AJ MacGinty’s penalty attempt to fade wide on the final play. Should this turn out to be Borthwick’s final game in charge of Tigers, if the 43-year-old succeeds Eddie Jones as England head coach on the back of the coming week’s review, he will not forget it in a hurry.
“Club coaches are always in contact with the RFU,” said Borthwick, downplaying the situation. “We’ve got a big contingent of England players, so I am always talking to them around our players and that’s my focus.”
This game was not short on spicy storylines. Genge was facing the team he had captained to the Premiership title last season. Borthwick and Pat Lam, his opposite number, staged a touchline spat at Welford Road in 2021. Semi Radradra was making his first Bears appearance since April.
Chris Ashton invited early pressure on to the champions with a long kick that bobbled over Bristol’s dead-ball line. The hosts stretched Leicester on either flank and Piers O’Conor released a roaming Sam Lewis. Though the flanker was hauled down just short, Radrada finished opportunistically. Callum Sheedy could not convert from out wide.
On a cold yet still evening, Bristol continued to move the ball nicely but Tigers had the next opportunity. Kelly unleashed Jasper Wiese directly from a line-out and the ferocious Springbok stormed deep into opposition territory. Genge rescued his side, firing up out of the defensive line to bring about a fumble from James Whitcombe.
Freddie Burns engineered the Leicester response towards the end of the first quarter. He charged down Sheedy’s kick-pass and slotted a straightforward penalty after the Tigers backs had piled in to force a breakdown turnover.
Guy Porter had been in the thick of that steal and carried well in the build-up to Burns’s next penalty, awarded for Lewis straying offside.
Bristol did not trail for long. Sheedy looped the ball over Anthony Watson following some sharp work from Ibitoye and Genge. Charles Piutau surged over.
On the half-hour mark, Radradra left Burns on the turf with a high tackle that earned only a yellow card because its victim had dipped into contact. Leicester went to the corner, eked out metres with their maul and cut their deficit to 12-11 as Kelly cut an incisive angle.
Charlie Atkinson, temporarily on for Burns, missed the conversion but soon directed a slick movement that saw Guy Porter offload to Chris Ashton. Bristol’s defence scrapped hard but, thanks to the hard-running Kelly and others, Leicester recovered momentum and Ashton slipped through.
Although Radradra returned from the sin-bin prior to half-time, he could only watch as the Leicester pack bulldozed over for try number three. Julian Montoya was the beneficiary of a muscular maul and Burns’s conversion left Tigers 23-12 up at the break.
Leicester needed to defend stoutly for most of the third quarter but more power from Wiese led another penalty for Burns. Bristol kept coming however, and set up a blockbuster finale. Genge tapped a close-range penalty and was tackled high by Van Wyk. Bryan Byrne shunted over and, before the conversion, the television match official identified Van Wyk’s offence.
A red card resulted. All of a sudden, the 14 men of Tigers were in a tricky spot, which became more difficult as Bristol rediscovered their fluency. Though Leicester ate into the clock with some street-wise scrummaging, Ibitoye skated through a tired defence with five minutes remaining after another charge from Genge had injected impetus. Subdued for so long, the crowd erupted. MacGinty’s conversion tied things up and the Bears’ running game eked out one more opportunity when Tigers strayed offside, but the US international came up short from the tee.
Although Bristol still sit bottom, despite picking up a try bonus point as well as two for the draw, Lam was buoyant about a bittersweet night.
“There is disappointment, but we are on the right track,” he said. “The boys are working extremely hard. This competition is awesome, the quality of rugby in it.
“Goal-kickers, at the end of the day, are the ones who are most disappointed if they don’t get it through, but we get behind him [MacGinty] and we move on. We will keep working and keep pushing. There is a long way to go in this competition.”
Scoring sequence: 5-0 Radradra try, 5-3 Burns penalty, 5-6 Burns penalty, 10-6 Piutau try, 12-6 Sheedy conversion, 12-11 Kelly try, 12-16 Ashton try, 12-21 Montoya try, 12-23 Burns conversion, 12-26 Burns penalty, 17-26 Byrne try, 19-26 MacGinty conversion, 24-26 Ibitoye try, 26-26 MacGinty conversion.
Bristol Bears: C Piutau; D Bailey, S Radradra, P O’Conor, G Ibitoye; C Sheedy (A MacGinty, 57), W Porter; E Genge (J Woolmore, 77), B Byrne (H Thacker, 66), M Lahiff (J Tyack, 74), C Vui, J Batley, S Luatua, S Lewis (D Thomas, 39), J Heenan.
Yellow card: Radrada.
Replacements not used: J Hawkins, A Uren, J Jenkins.
Leicester Tigers: F Steward; C Ashton (J Whitcombe, 69), G Porter, D Kelly (H Potter, 63), A Watson; F Burns (C Atkinson 29-39), B Youngs (J van Poorvliet, 52); J Whitcombe (F van Wyk, 52), J Montoya (C Clare, 71), D Cole (J Heyes, 62), H Wells (E Snyman, 71), O Chessum, H Liebenberg, T Reffell (G Martin, 57), J Wiese.
Red card: Van Wyk.
Referee: Mr C Maxwell-Keys.