Saracens stutter over the line but victory over Bristol keeps home semi-final hope alive ahead of final weekend

Duncan Bech
Saracens celebrate after driving Petrus du Plessis over the line for one of his two tries: Getty

Saracens moved to within one win of guaranteeing a home Aviva Premiership semi-final but produced one of their worst performances of the season in dispatching relegated Bristol 27-9.

Perhaps suffering the after-effects of the 36-hour squad bonding trip to Barcelona that ended on Monday evening, they struggled alarmingly for the first 40 minutes at Allianz Park before registering a bonus-point win.

Chris Ashton and Nick Tompkins crossed, while Petrus du Plessis touched down twice for his first tries at the club he has represented for seven years but is leaving in the summer.

Saracens paraded five British and Irish Lions in their starting XV and included one more in reinforcement on the bench, yet they were error-prone and ragged and trailed 9-3 to three Gavin Henson penalties at the interval.

It was a far cry from the heights scaled when overwhelming Munster in Dublin seven days ago and - although they improved in the second-half - they were still muddled and disjointed.

They had the firepower to overcome a rare off-day, however, and they next head to Coventry when they will face Wasps knowing that victory against the Premiership leaders in the climax to the regular season would guarantee a home play-off.

It ensured a triumphant send-off for Kelly Brown and Neil de Kock, who retire at the end of the season, and free agent Du Plessis.

Right from the start Saracens looked a shadow of the team that exposed Munster as European pretenders at the Aviva Stadium, the unforced errors that were a feature of the first half evident early on.

A chance was engineered in the 16th minute when Alex Lozowski, who was starting at inside centre, grabbed a loose ball and raced up field but Ashton was unable to keep hold of what should have been the scoring pass.

Kelly Brown played in his final game before retirement (Getty)

Ashton had a try disallowed for off-side after hacking Billy Searle's kick ahead and - when Henson slotted the ensuing penalty and landed three more points - Bristol had managed to seize a surprise 6-0 lead.

Saracens sought to build some momentum with a series of attacking scrums but their play was ragged, Alex Goode's knock on while under no pressure summing up their abysmal opening half.

Henson and Owen Farrell exchanged penalties and, while Bristol were spending more time defending, they had few problems dealing with any threats as Ashton was easily shepherded into touch.

Mako Vunipola needed treatment to his knee early in the second half - a worrying sign given his recent problems with the joint - but he was able to take part in a dominant scrum.

Chris Ashton dives over the line to score despite Gavin Henson's last-ditch tackle (Getty)

Tompkins was stripped of the ball as Saracens sought to capitalise on their start and, while he was responsible for that attack coming to an end, the outside centre was instrumental in setting up their first try.

Two powerful runs from the England Saxon helped create a half-chance for Ashton that the wing leapt upon, chipping ahead and gathering to touch down.

Mistakes continued to dog the champions, but they had now taken a grip on the match and as the third quarter approached they were over for a second time when a line-out drive ended with Du Plessis crashing over.

Petrus du Plessis celebrates his first try for Saracens (Getty)

The floodgates were opening and Saracens plundered their third try when Schalk Burger bulldozed up field before Farrell and Lozowski combined to send Tompkins over.

Bristol enjoyed a late revival but the final quarter was all about the bonus point and it came with 90 seconds left, Du Plessis claiming his second after another line-out drive.

Teams

Saracens: Goode, Ashton, Tompkins, Lozowski, Wyles, Farrell, de Kock, M. Vunipola, Brits, Koch, Itoje, Kruis, Brown, S. Burger, B. Vunipola.

Replacements: George, Lamositele, du Plessis, Hamilton, Earl, Wigglesworth, Gallagher, Ellery.

Bristol: Woodward, Edwards, Hurrell, Henson, Tovey, Searle, Mathewson, O'Connell, M. Jones, G. Cortes, J. Phillips, Sorenson, S. Jeffries, O. Robinson, Eadie.

Replacements: Crumpton, Dawe, Ford-Robinson, Glynn, Fenton-Wells, R. Williams, Pisi, Piutau.

Referee: Andrew Jackson (RFU)

PA

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