Saracens 20-19 Bristol: Francois Hougaard seals late win for relentless Gallagher Premiership leaders
Francois Hougaard scored a dramatic late try on his League debut for Saracens as the Gallagher Premiership leaders edged out Bristol 20-19.
South African Hougaard struck with the clock almost three minutes in the red, rounding off a spell of relentless pressure that broke a resilient Bristol.
It was Saracens’ 12th Premiership win of the season, but Bristol remain rooted at the basement, having lost eight from their last 10 league games.
The visitors led by nine points midway through the final quarter, yet wing Rotimi Segun followed up hooker Theo Dan’s earlier try with Saracens’ second touchdown, before Hougaard struck, while full-back Alex Goode kicked a penalty and conversion.
Hooker Harry Thacker and wing Gabriel Ibitoye touched down for Bristol, with centre James Williams kicking two penalties and fly-half AJ MacGinty one.
Saracens were without their sizeable England contingent ahead of next weekend’s Guinness Six Nations kick-off, with flanker Jackson Wray captaining the team on his 300th first-team appearance, packing down alongside Andy Christie and Billy Vunipola.
Bristol skipper Steven Luatua returned from injury, while Ibitoye was recalled on the wing and Williams made a first Premiership start.
Bristol, despite starting the game 31 points behind Saracens in the table, gave as good as they got during fast and furious initial exchanges, and MacGinty kicked them into a 12th-minute lead after Thacker charged down an attempted defensive clearance.
Saracens were disjointed and untidy, with Bristol monopolising territory as strong-running backs Semi Radradra and Siva Naulago tried to make headway.
Radradra breached Saracens’ defence midway through the half, touching down one-handed, but referee Anthony Woodthorpe disallowed the try following a knock-on by Bristol full-back Rich Lane.
Lane was involved in the action again 10 minutes before half-time, but he could not finish off a thrilling move started by Radradra, conceding a penalty instead following a double movement close to Saracens’ line.
Saracens were not helped by a horribly-misfiring lineout, yet Bristol failed to punish their opponents despite setting up camp inside the home team’s 22.
A handful of chances went astray before Bristol finally claimed the try their dominance warranted when a lineout drive ended in Thacker claiming his sixth Premiership touchdown of the season, and the league strugglers led 8-0 at half-time.
Thacker went off at half-time, being replaced by Bryan Byrne, and Bristol were immediately on the back foot as a Goode penalty attempt hit the post and Vunipola began making considerable ground through his trademark power.
But Saracens’ set-piece continued to malfunction, with Bristol gaining a long-range penalty chance that Williams accepted to put them 11 points clear midway through the third quarter before a Goode strike opened Saracens’ account.
Williams then found his range again, landing a second successful penalty from just inside Saracens’ half, and it generated a response with Bristol’s defence finally breached after 58 minutes.
In a carbon-copy of Bristol’s try, Saracens drove a lineout and it was Dan who touched down, and Goode’s conversion cut the deficit to four points.
It was a worrying spell for Bristol as Saracens strived to wipe out their advantage, yet the visitors moved back upfield and delivered a second try nine minutes from time.
The source was another attacking lineout, although Bristol moved possession wide on this occasion, with Ibitoye finishing off after receiving Radradra’s pass.
There seemed no way back for Saracens after that, despite Segun’s late score, and Bristol looked as though they would be able to celebrate a rare Premiership victory on the road - but Hougaard gate-crashed their party.