Saracens wake from sluggish start thanks to Petrus du Plessis double

Gerard Meagher at Allianz Park
Nick Tompkins runs through the Bristol defence to score Saracens’ third try in their 27-9 victory at Allianz Park. Photograph: Henry Browne/Reuters

Having not scored a try in seven years at Saracens, Petrus du Plessis grabbed two in 20 minutes to seal a bonus-point victory against a defiant Bristol, to keep the defending Premiership champions in the hunt for a home play-off semi-final.

In arguably their worst performance of the season, despite naming a starting XV who included five of their six Lions, Saracens stumbled their way past the bottom side, who led 9-3 at half-time, with two tries from their replacement tighthead and one apiece from Chris Ashton and Nick Tompkins. Saracens, for whom Kelly Brown and Neil de Kock were making their final appearances, remain third but now go to Wasps on the final day of the season, only two points behind Dai Young’s side and Exeter, who are level on 79.

The Saracens director of rugby, Mark McCall, will rest a number of players against Wasps with an eye on the Champions Cup final and rejected the idea the team-bonding trip to Barcelona after beating Munster last weekend was to blame for their poor showing.

“It was a really disappointing performance,” said McCall, who also confirmed Mako Vunipola was fine after a knock to his troublesome left knee. “We’ve got certain standards, give Bristol some credit, but we fell well short of those. But you mustn’t try to say that what’s happened this afternoon was because of Barcelona. We had a good training week, we just played poorly.”

Ashton thought he had scored the opening try on 23 minutes – not for the first time a Bristol grubber kick was blocked, allowing the Saracens wing to hack ahead and beat Gavin Henson to the ball, only to be hauled back for offside. So far back that the penalty was within Henson’s range – 3-0 to Bristol and fully deserved considering Saracens’s error count.

Billy Vunipola was uncharacteristically at fault for a number of those. His handling was poor in the opening half and he was not alone – Ashton would have been clear in the right-hand corner had he held on to Alex Lozowski’s pass.

Henson has endured his fair share of ill-fated spells at various clubs throughout his career but his stint at Saracens, when he started a solitary match, was particularly forgettable. A second penalty from his booming right boot put Bristol 6-0 to the good and it is hard not to think what may have been had the 35-year-old stayed injury-free this season.

Henson and Owen Farrell, who had earlier missed a routine kick at goal, traded penalties before half-time and six minutes after the restart Ashton had his 14th try in as many matches and 75th for the club – gathering his measured kick down the right touchline after a break from Tompkins. Farrell converted to edge Saracens ahead.

If that was an ominous score for Bristol it took Saracens another 10 minutes to score their second try – Du Plessis shoved over from a lineout drive, shortly after coming off the bench. Farrell missed the conversion but Saracens had their third try when Lozowski pierced the Bristol defence and found Tompkins on his outside. Farrell then had a try disallowed but Du Plessis, who leaves the club at the end of the season, was again pushed over to clinch the bonus point with 90 seconds to go.

“To win Premiership matches you need to score tries and in the second half we probably didn’t fire enough shots,” said Bristol’s head coach, Mark Tainton. “I suppose it flattered them in the end. We were a lot closer than the scoreline indicated, that’s the story of the season.”

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