Saracens earned a hard-fought 39-31 victory over a spirited Bristol Bears side, but they did not have it all their own way on a freezing day in North London.
It is often said that the greatest sides know how to win in games that they perform poorly.
If so, then there are positives to take from a game that saw Saracens pushed all the way by a team in poor form.
Matters were not helped by captain Owen Farrell who uncharacteristically missed 6 kicks, a total of 13 points, for the first time in his career.
A scrappy but engaging first half saw Saracens race into a 10-0 lead through a Farrell try and one orchestrated by the English fly-half.
But the half finished three tries a piece, with the power of Bristol’s pack and the kick perfect Callum Sheedy stunning the reigning champions as two late tries saw them take a well-deserved 21-15 lead into half time.
If the main difference in the first period was Farrell’s failure to convert any of his conversations, the London side would have hoped for a marked improvement in the second.
A skewed penalty from the middle of the field early in the second half indicated that that was unlikely to be the case.
It must be said however, that Farrell proved effective with the ball in hand, linking play and driving his team on multiple forays into the Bristol twenty-two.
Five minutes into the second half, he led his side deep into enemy territory and it was his right foot that put the ball in the corner for Alex Lewington to run in a try and restore the Sarries’ 22-21 lead.
Bristol hit back with a penalty, but Saracens began to turn the screw and two tires in eight minutes, one from a charged down Farrell kick that fell kindly to Theo McFarland, made it a two-score game.
Bristol set up an entertaining last 10 minutes as the weaving run of Gabriel Itoye set up Kieran Marmion to go through for a try.
But a yellow card to captain Fitz Harding for collapsing a maul, proved a bridge too far for Bristol who succumbed to the pressure when the impressive Jamie George was bundled over for the second time, quashing their strong resistance, as Sarries made it 39-31.
Asked about his side’s performance, Saracens Director of Rugby Mark McCall said: “It was one of those days, wasn’t it?
“I’ve got to give the players credit for how they responded second half, they dominated and overall, I was much happier with it.”
On a difficult afternoon for Farrell, Elliot Daly backed him to put his uncharacteristic showing with the boot behind him.
Daly said: “It’s a difficult skill and you have those games. I’m sure he’ll be back to normal for the next one.”
Despite losing for the fifth consecutive game, Bristol left the capital with their heads held high.
Bristol’s Director of Rugby Pat Lam was full of praise for his side: “The performance was good and definitely does (give confidence).
“We performed well and had moments where had we been calmer on the ball, we could have scored more.”
The Bears leave North London empty handed but their performance, against a great Saracens side, gives plenty of encouragement that they are capable of ending their losing streak in the coming weeks.
Saracens A Goode; A Lewington, E Daly, N Tompkins (O Hartley 79), T Parton (S Maitland 64); O Farrell (c), A Davies (G Simpson 62); M Vunipola (E Mawi 58), J George (K Pifeleti 77), C Judge (A Clarey 44), M Itoje, H Tizard (T McFarland 54), T Willis (T Knight 79), A Christie, B Vunipola.
Bristol Bears M Malins; G Ibitoye, V Vakatawa (J Williams 79), B J van Rensburg, R Lane (K Ravouvou 67); C Sheedy, H Randall (K Marmion 67); E George (J Woolmore 68), G Oghre (H Thacker 56), K Sinckler (G Kloska 68); J Dun, J Batley; J Heenan (J Caulfield 67), D Thomas, F Harding (sin-bin, 75). Replacement not used P Pearce.
Referee L Pearce