JORDAN CRANE returned to lead a young Bristol Bears side at the home of French Top14 side La Rochelle and crawled over the line to score the only try of the game, writes John Harding.
Co-captain, fly-half Callum Sheedy, converted Crane’s touch-down and also added two penalties in the Pool Four win.
The victory in the wind and rain in front of more than 500 travelling supporters in western France keeps alive Bristol’s hopes of snatching second place in the group away from Italian side Zebre, who claimed maximum points from their 58-17 victory at home to Enisei-STM.
Just the five pool winners and three best-placed runners-up qualifying for the quarter-finals at the end of March.
Bristol’s final two games are against Enisei-STM, with the first leg being at the Yug Stadium in Sochi on January 12 with the home leg a week later.
“I’m really excited and very proud – it is a huge moment in our season,” said the Bears head coach Pat Lam. “We always talk about all the work we do as a squad – it doesn’t matter who wears the jersey – you do it proud.
“We’ve trained really well this past week. We knew we were unlucky last week as we made a few errors, but in this game you saw a massive effort particularly in defence against some big boys out there.
“One of the hardest places to win in club rugby is in France, so this is a big moment for these boys in their careers and us as a group. It keeps us alive in the competition.
“It also gives us the momentum going into two important Premiership games [away to Sale and home to Newcastle] with the quality of our play in this game, though we probably blew two or three tries as well.”
The Bears made six changes from the side that lost 35-22 to the French Top 14 side last weekend at Ashton Gate as head coach Lam again selected an all English-qualified team for the challenge at Stade Marcel-Deflandere.
Man-of-the -match Crane returned at No.8, Jake Woolmore was at loose-head prop, Shaun Malton at hooker and Ed Holmes at lock, while in the backs Sam Bedlow came in at inside-centre and Nic Stirzaker at scrum-half.
The hosts made 12 changes including bringing former Gloucester fly-half Ryan Lamb into their starting line-up, while former South African back row Wiaan Liebenberg, who has joined them as injury cover for Lopeti Timani, was on the bench.
La Rochelle went into the game unbeaten at the top of Pool Four having secured a try-scoring bonus point in each of their previous three games, while the Bears were eight points adrift in third-place with just one win from their three outings.
There was a minute’s applause before the start of the match in memory of Stade Francais youth player Nicolas Chauvin, 18, who sustained a broken neck in a tackle at Bordeaux last Sunday and then died in hospital on Wednesday.
Bristol looked to have opened the scoring after ten minutes when Jake Heenan burst down the touchline, but he was tackled by full-back Arthur Retiere and, after consulting the TMO, referee Frank Murphy ruled that the ball had not been grounded properly.
But Sheedy got the three points on the board for the visitors five minutes later after Lamb had been yellow carded for a deliberate knock-on.
Despite being a man down, La Rochelle hit back, after having a try ruled out, with a Retiere penalty.
On the half hour, Bristol camped out close and mounting a series of attacks on the line, as the referee was playing advantage until the Bears were held-up over the whitewash. The play came back for the penalty which Sheedy slotted between the uprights.
Bristol extended their lead five minutes into the second half as flanker Nick Haining charged down scrum-half Tawera Kerr Barlow’s clearance kick and scampered towards the line before Crane claimed the touchdown and Sheedy converted.
The Bears were tested as the game went into the final ten minutes with replacement Tim Eden tackling fellow replacement Jean-Charles Orioli into touch just short of the line before Bears’ prop Jake Woolmore was sent to the sin-bin four minutes from time.
La Rochelle: A Retiere; J Sinzelle, B Plessis-Couillaud (L Botia, 56), P Aguillo, E Roudil; R Lamb (I West, 49), T Kerr Barlow (A Bales, 67); D Priso (M Corbel, 61), H Forbes (J-C Orioli, 49), S Puafisi (M Boughanmi, 61) R Sazy (capt), W Demotte (J Qovu Nailiko, 49), G Alldritt (W Liebenberg, 56), P Boudehent, K Gourdon.
Scorers pen: A Retiere
Yellow card R Lamb (14-24)
Bristol Bears: M Protheroe (L Daniels, 75); T Pincus, P O’Conor, S Bedlow (T Eden, ht), C Powell (O Dawe, 79) C Sheedy (co-capt), N Stirzaker (A Uren, 56); J Woolmore, S Malton (N Fenton-Wells, 56), L Thiede (J Armstrong, 59), E Holmes, J Joyce, N Haining, J Heenan (S Graham, 59), J Crane (co-capt). Reps (not used): J Hawkins,
Bristol scorers – try: C Crane; con: C Sheedy; pens: C Sheedy 2
Yellow card: J Woolmore (76)
Referee: Frank Murphy (Ireland)