Bristol Bears kept up their flawless record in Europe this season, but not in the easiest of circumstances as they edged out Stade Francais in Paris 18-16.
The Pink Shirts enjoyed a wealth of penalty kicks that, coupled with some tight defence, should have sealed the result. However, Pat Lam’s men pushed to the bitter end and a late, late try from Harry Thacker turned the game on its head.
Lam was clearly looking to switch things up from the reverse result, when Bears only ran away with the game in the last 15 minutes. The director of rugby named eight changes to the starting XV, as Mat Protheroe and Toby Fricker stepped into the backline whilst Callum Sheedy and Nic Stirzaker made up the half-backs.
Will Capon and Max Lahiff returned to the front row, with Ed Holmes and local lad Joe Joyce filled the second row behind. Charles Piutau and John Afoa were rested with Chris Vui donning the captain’s armband.
The Parisians opted for six changes to their side, in dire need of a good result; they had only recorded three victories since August, and the players told French reporters that their aim is get back into a winning mentality with a team that has tightened itself up.
Indeed, they looked to back up their words from the off as Adrian Lapegue broke off down the wing to cross over, but referee Andrea Piardi pulled it back for a forward pass.
This cleared the Bristol players’ heads and they sharpened up. Stade nicked the ball from the scrum and fly-half Nicolas Sanchez threatened to break but Stirzaker cut him down. With the ball turned over, Piers O’Conor and Nathan Hughes working hard to get it up the pitch, but Harry Thacker found himself dead in the water as Stade swamped him.
Much as they had in the West Country leg, Les Stadistes looked to frustrate by keeping Bristol locked out of their 22 for the opening half. A penalty 40 yards out from a maul gave the Pink Shirts a chance to break the deadlock on 15 minutes, but Sanchez missed his kick.
Bears rallied and pressed their hosts, earning a penalty for their troubles for not releasing. Sheedy opted for the posts and his kick was clean.
Wary of a repeat of last week, Stade pushed back hard and, from a line-out, Waisea Nayacalevu bullied his way over before the half-hour. Planted between the posts, there was no missing for Sanchez this time.
The hosts let themselves down moments later, however, as Pablo Matera was sent to the sin bin for smacking Fricker in the face and Bears made the most of their man advantage. A searching kick to the corner became a line-out and turned to the ruck, where the added legs of the Bristol backs helped Capon to squeeze the ball over. Sheedy couldn’t split the posts from the angle.
That slim lead evaporated almost immediately, as from the restart the visitors were penalised for a high tackle to hand Sanchez the chance to retake the lead.
Spurred on, Stade were incisive in their attacks. Winger Lapegue threatened on the flank, requiring a heap of bodies to bring him down, and then Mathieu De Giovanni was through but a knock-on at the last moment spoiled the chance.
At the other end, a similar mistake cost O’Conor as he looked almost certain to cross, but Stirzaker’s kick bounced off of him and the two sides went into the break at 10-8.
There might not have been many spectators in the Stade Jean-Bouin but Stade were aiming to impress, carrying the same momentum from the end of the first 40. Five minutes in, Bristol were penalised for putting hands in the ruck and Sanchez extended his side’s lead with another penalty.
There was a dire need for improvement by Lam’s men. Nathan Hughes powered his way through and had to be stopped, but Stade stepped offside and Sheedy slotted.
Just like in the first half, Stade quickly turned the ball around from a mistake at the restart. Alapati Leiua dropped the ball and clamped down on it but did not release. Sanchez’s kick was miles off, however, yet another let off for Bears.
Matt Protheroe showed just why he couldn’t be let loose, sprinting into the home 22 until he was finally brought down.
That was the only chance of note for the visitors before Stade kept possession and probed the Bears’ defence, pushing them back toward the try line. An upset scrum gave Stade a fifth penalty kick at the posts with less than an hour gone. Sanchez stepped up and put it between the uprights.
With 15 minutes left of play, Bristol were really made to sweat. The Parisians were locking down and making sure that their visitors had little options in attack, even if they had most of the ball.
Harry Thacker, replacing Will Capon, made a dangerous break and shortly after Leiua came close to the line, but once again Bears were squeezed with Hughes pushed into touch from the offload.
With five minutes left to go, Bristol suddenly made secure ground from the maul. A couple of phases later and from the pick and go, Thacker dived over the bodies to bring the score to 16-16. Looking right between the posts, Sheedy did the business and Bears suddenly had the win in their mitts.
Although the Parisians made one last move from the maul, a knock on from the offload brought an end to play and Lam’s men had nicked it to keep their 100 per cent record in Europe.
“It probably wasn’t our best performance but we don’t stop,” second rower Joyce admitted after the match. “We pride ourselves on that last 20 minutes and we got the job again, didn’t we? We’re making a habit of that!”
Stade Francais: Tui; Naivalu, Nayacalevu, Arrate, Lapegue; Sanchez, Hall; Mavinga, Latu, Melikidze, Pyle, De Giovanni, Matera, Chapuis, Francoz
Replacements: Panis, Futeu, Alo-Emile, Maestri, Macalou, Coville, Segonds, Danty
Penalties: Sanchez 3
Bears: Protheroe; Fricker, O’Conor, Bedlow, Leiua; Sheedy, Stirzaker; Woolmore, Capon, Lahiff, Holmes, Joyce, Vui, Heenan, Hughes.
Replacements: Thacker, Lay, Thomas, Hawkins, Hamilton, Uren, Lloyd, Morahan.
Tries: Capon, Thacker
Penalties: Sheedy 2