Much has happened in the 14 months since Bristol’s returning supporters last watched their local heroes play live. These days the Bears are clear Premiership leaders and remain on course for a home semi-final but, despite the cheerful presence of 3,128 excited fans, this bizarre contest was a reminder that nothing in rugby can ever be entirely delivered to order.
Against opponents reduced to 14 men inside the first quarter, Bristol were as wasteful as a broken sewage pipe for lengthy periods, contriving to cross the Gloucester line eight times without registering a try. At least the Bears’ five legitimate tries were enough to take them 12 points clear of second-placed Sale but they could – and probably should – have rattled up 70-odd points.
The most glaring self-inflicted howler came when Charles Piutau was caught napping as he eased up in the in-goal area and had the ball knocked from his startled grasp by Kyle Moyle. Amid the dropped balls, forward passes and fractional knock-ons, however, the Bears can at least be consoled that when their rapier-like attacking rugby does click there is currently no one to touch them.
Gloucester, who last won a league game in Bristol four years ago, could also take pride from their defiance in adversity, with the Lions winger Louis Rees-Zammit even forced into emergency service on the flank. Ultimately, though, the best bit was the noise in the stands, a welcome indicator that post-Covid normality is finally within sight.
Despite the reduced congregation, the vocal enthusiasm around the ground was still a genuine joy. “When we walked out it was like a shock, the noise,” said Pat Lam, the Bears’ director of rugby. “It was incredible what our fans did. I started getting a bit emotional when they came out, I’m getting soft, but it was just so wonderful.”
Even the pre-match smell of burgers wafting from the stadium van felt delightfully decadent, a forbidden pleasure with extra onions. Some of the home fans had travelled from as far as north Wales, reflecting the levels of expectancy beginning to surround the Bears. Around 8,000 season tickets have already been sold for next season, by which time all connected with Bristol hope the club will have featured in this season’s Premiership final.
They will need to stop being so profligate, however, to claim the title. After a couple of early penalties from the man of the match Callum Sheedy the tone was set when a stunning counterattack, instigated by Andy Uren and taken on by a surging Semi Radradra, was ruled out because Kyle Sinckler was adjudged to have lost control on his way over.
Rather more obvious was the inevitable red card shown to a penitent Matías Alemanno after Steven Luatua was upended with the type of dangerous double tackle which has thankfully grown rarer in recent times. When Val Rapava-Ruskin soon followed to the bin, reducing the visitors to 13 men, it appeared only a matter of time before Gloucester’s implosion began.
The Bears, though, seemed intent on finding assorted ways not to score until, finally the dam burst 12 minutes before the interval.
Space opened up invitingly for the alert Sheedy and the fly-half’s lovely reverse flick put Max Malins over for his latest high-class score. The classy England full-back has only limited experience on the wing but already looks entirely at home there.
The odds on Gloucester still being within a single score at the interval at that stage were seriously long. Somehow, though, the Cherry and Whites continued to hang tough, Billy Twelvetrees’ fine kick to the corner setting up decent field position and a fine long ball allowing Santiago Carreras just enough space to squeeze into the left corner.
Again it seemed unlikely to matter as another glorious Bristol attack ended with Piutau sauntering over the line. For whatever reason, however, the full-back fatally relaxed and the retreating Moyle dislodged the ball in the nick of time.
The theme was maintained after the interval, a tiny knock-on in the build-up cancelling out another potential score for Uren and a forward pass from Sheedy to Malins costing the Bears yet another try.
It was almost a novelty act when Chris Vui broke clear and legitimately fed Piutau for a 54th-minute score that brought some relief to his socially distanced audience. To even things up Willi Heinz had a potential Cherry and Whites try ruled out for offside but tries for Ben Earl, Nathan Hughes and the ever-dangerous Radradra eventually delivered the conclusive margin that Bristol’s superiority demanded.