- Leicester 23-26 Bristol
- Mass brawl and accusations of lying after heated clash
What a way to claim your first home play-off. Bristol were forced into all manner of antics to survive this with maximum points, having played themselves into a winning position with the sort of swagger with which we more readily associate them.
Leicester, their home stadium reverberating with a passion it has not seen for months – some might say years – seemed to have Bristol on their knees, forcing them into penalty after penalty as the clock ticked down. Ellis Genge had the number of Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, Bristol’s replacement tighthead, as the two sides engaged at repeated scrums on the Bristol five-metre line.
The Tigers were trailing by only three and seemed set to force their way over somehow. Clinch the win and they would be assured of a place in Europe next season. Eventually, Tetaz Chaparro was sent to the sin-bin for the umpteenth penalty against Bristol, and the action shifted, with time up on the clock, to the touchline. An incensed Steve Borthwick could be heard accusing Pat Lam of lying, when the Bristol director of rugby tried to claim that his starting tighthead, John Afoa, whom Tetaz Chaparro had replaced at half-time, had come off injured.
The official match cards had registered the replacement as tactical. If Afoa had been injured, he would not be allowed to return for the final scrum. Subsequent scrums would be uncontested but Bristol would have to go down to 13 men. If his replacement at half-time had been tactical, he could come back.
While Lam was insisting he was injured, Afoa returned to the field of his own accord. At that final scrum Afoa ripped into Genge, the ball popped out, and Bristol kicked it into touch. The brawl that broke out seemed almost incidental.
Borthwick would not be drawn afterwards, while Lam tried to set his seemingly inconsistent approach in some sort of context. Afoa had been injured and was not due back for another week, but Bristol were short of props.
The decision was taken to start Afoa, who is 37, for fear that he might have to come on early if he began on the bench. When he was duly withdrawn at half-time, the registration of the replacement as tactical was described by Lam as an administrative error. But this is the point of contention. Was it an error or were Bristol keeping their options open?
The welfare concerns surrounding Afoa, who had also driven up on the day, are understandable, especially after he had spent an hour or so sitting on the bench. But this is a professional sport. Afoa was either replaced tactically or he was not. Had Tetaz Chaparro been injured on the hour, say, would Afoa have come back on then? These questions will no doubt be examined in a review.
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It is hoped any insults thrown in the heat of the moment will be treated as no more than that – passions running high under duress.
What this says about Bristol as potential champions is another intriguing question. When they click they are fabulous – as their four tries testify, two by Semi Radradra and one each by Harry Randall and Max Malins. But Exeter in particular will note how Leicester found give up front, albeit in the second half, by which time Afoa had left. The Tigers replied through Hanro Liebenberg and Julián Montoya, the latter’s score hauling the home team back from a 26-16 deficit after Radradra’s second on the hour.
One might consider what followed the ultimate example of a team finding a way to win; or one might see it as a lucky escape for would-be champions with a vulnerability. The next few weeks will reveal.
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