Down in Bristol, they believe they live in the biggest rugby city in the world. Now they have hard evidence to complement all of this sport culture, all these community clubs and players.
In a much smaller stadium than expected in Aix-en-Provence, just a few kilometers from the original site of the Stade Vélodrome in Marseille, Bristol won its first European trophy.
A brilliant try from Max Malins on time helped break the deadlock in the Challenge Cup final. Against the power of the local Toulonnais, themselves regulars of the European Honors Council, Bristol has notified its intention to establish itself as a rugby power to be taken seriously.
“I said before the game, ‘Let’s go celebrate who we are and what it means,’ said Pat Lam, Bristol rugby manager. “The way we play the game, the way our culture is, our love for each other. Let’s focus on the joy.
That joy was back on the faces of the Bears, after their humiliating loss to the Wasps in the Premiership semifinals last weekend. Six penalties from Callum Sheedy’s boot rounded off Bristol’s two wonderful tries. Toulon was well beaten. It feels weird to write it down, which contrasts with the recent history of the two clubs.
But there is nothing surreal about the surreal any longer. As Bristol got ready, news broke that this finale might not represent the strangest end of this season after all.
The memory of that exhilarating experience against the wasps was still stinging, only for the suggestion to emerge that it may not have been a final defeat. The Wasps have their own Covid outbreak to contend with, and if they can’t contain it Bristol will face Exeter next weekend in the Premiership final.
Winning a first European title is one thing; to become the first losing semi-finalist champion in the history of the sport would be another. They will only know on Wednesday whether they will be needed, so even without a global lockdown there could be no party in Aix-en-Provence.
The authority of this victory is all the more impressive given the missing staff. Charles Piutau and Nathan Hughes are internationals any team would covet and both were injured. Then, Captain Steven Luatua stepped back, so he could witness the birth of his daughter, who arrived just as Bristol was warming up.
The good vibes immediately started. From the kick-off, no less, Semi Radradra traded passes with Alapati Leiua to get out of the 22 and send Harry Randall away just over halfway – 15 seconds later. Minutes later, Sheedy picked up the first of his penalties to give Bristol a 10-0 lead. Easy.
Toulon are as massive a team as they’ve ever been, but they’ve offered little. They owed their only try to a confusion in the Bristol midfielder, which allowed Bryce Heem to capitalize. That they managed to turn around six points, Louis Carbonel scoring three penalties in the second quarter, was almost inexplicable.
Bristol might have had two more tries in that half alone. Joe Joyce seemed to have finished a nice team score in the corner just before the half hour, but the TMO decreed the last pass forward. It’s not gone far. A few minutes earlier Harry Thacker had groped his way trying to land.
Mighty Ben Earl was front and center as Bristol battled that deficit, with Sheedy winning the fly-half third quarter three penalties to one. Sheedy had to fight for his place, despite his recent call-up to the Wales squad, with Malins – like Earl, a visitor to the Saracens – but the two were able to showcase their respective wares for this crucial test of the hour. .
Sheedy’s nice kick in the corner pinned Toulon in their own 22. When the French knocked down the next line-up they hacked the ball, only for Leiua to feed Malins. With inconvenient ease, the full-back accelerated between Toulon’s crosses to slide towards the line and open Toulon as the match entered the final quarter. Two penalties from Sheedy in the final five minutes gave the score a more appropriate glow.