With a last-second try from Francois Hougaard, Saracens overcame Bristol 20-19.
Bristol took the lead in a tense first half thanks to a Harry Thacker try and AJ MacGinty’s penalty.
Prior to a Theo Dan try that trimmed the deficit to four points, James Williams and Alex Goode traded penalties.
Ten minutes before the end, Gabriel Ibitoye’s try gave Bristol a nine-point lead, but Rotimi Segun answered and Hougaard scored late to clinch the victory.
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While Bristol remained at the bottom of the standings but gained a losing bonus point to narrow the gap to two points on Bath above them, Saracens extended their unbeaten streak at the StoneX Stadium to 14 games and increased their lead at the top of the table to eight points.
It took Sarries 51 minutes to score any points since they were far from their best and were missing a number of international players, including seven England internationals.
The Bears took the lead right away thanks to a penalty from MacGinty, but the visitors’ attack problems this year—they have the worst points differential of any team in the league—were plain to see. Despite having most of the first half’s possession and territory, they were mostly limited to three points.
Rich Lane was stopped by a Duncan Taylor tackle a short distance from the try line, then Semi Radradra stormed down the blindside and eventually crossed the try line only to have it chalked off for a knock-on.
After a close-range line-out, Ibitoye attempted to dive over but came up short. Only hooker Thacker eventually scored seconds later, powering over in a maul to end the first half.
For Bristol, center James Williams, who was making his maiden Premiership start, stepped up to convert a long-range penalty and increase their advantage to 11 points after MacGinty missed the conversion and the ensuing penalty.
A few seconds later, Goode eventually gave Saracens a score with his own, but Williams added another as the hosts continued to accrue penalties.
Dan’s maul goal gave Sarries a boost, but Ibitoye’s corner try with Bristol’s forwards trapping the Saracens defense appeared to seal the game for Bristol.
Segun stormed over, however, to set up a dramatic finale, and the leaders showed why they have been so dominant this season.
Hougaard crushed Bristol hearts with the final play of the game as Sarries carried the ball wide from a line-out to score in the corner. The hosts had unsettled Bristol’s defense and were applying more pressure.
Mark McCall, the rugby director at Saracens, spoke on BBC Radio London:
This one is a little different because the entire team underwent substantial turnover, and we decided not to make many international players available in order to give some younger guys an opportunity.
“I’m extremely pleased with how we persevered since the first half was challenging for us; we lost a lot of line-outs and were unable to effectively stop their driving maul, but we persisted and the score was close enough at the break.
It was a performance to be incredibly proud of, in my opinion, because of the amazing fight we displayed in the second half, especially in the final 20 minutes.
Pat Lam, the rugby director for Bristol, stated on BBC Radio Bristol:
“We’re quite irritated. After giving it our all in that game and feeling like we had the game under control (8-0, but it could have been more), we had a few tries that we likely could have converted.
“The boys put forth a lot of effort, but we should have safeguarded that when we had a nine-point advantage with five minutes left.
“Even then, they had to score a try with less than three minutes left. It was foolish of us to give the ball back to them after they handed it to us. There were numerous poor reads in the end there even though we had practiced all week on keeping that ball.
I can’t criticize the effort, but we squandered a big chance, and overall I’m very pissed off about it.
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Goode, Segun, Lozowski, Taylor, Lewington, M. Vunipola, Davies; Hislop, Dan, Judge, Kitchener, Tizard, Christie, Wray (c), B. Vunipola are the members of the Saracens.
Pifeleti, Mawi, Clarey, Boo, Ellis, Van Zyl, Tompkins, and Hougaard are the replacements.
Lane, Naulago, Radradra, Williams, Ibitoye, MacGinty, and Randall are the Bristol Bears; Thomas, Thacker, Lahiff, Batley, Vui, Luatua (c), Heenan, and Bradbury are the backups.
Byrne, Woolmore, Benz-Salomon, Holmes, Harding, Uren, Sheedy, and Bates are the replacements.
Anthony Woodthorpe is the referee.