After a seven-year absence, and three Championship finals in the last three years, Bristol Rugby finally hauled themselves back into Aviva Premiership Rugby on Wednesday evening – although it was not all plain sailing.
A last-gasp try gave the Knights a 34-32 win on the night after an incredible second-half comeback but they were unable to overturn the 15-point first-leg deficit, with the final aggregate score 60-47.
A record crowd of over 16,000 enjoyed the clash at Ashton Gate, showing Bristol can expect some massive attendances in Aviva Premiership Rugby when the stadium expansion is completed over the summer.
A stunning Doncaster fightback – with tries from Paul Jarvis, Tyson Lewis and Ollie Stedman – saw the Knights return from 25-10 down to lead 27-25.
James Philips’ 73rd-minute try settled Bristol nerves but there was still time for Knights replacement Latu Makaafi to give the visitors victory on the night.
But it was Bristol who were celebrating a deserved return to the top table of English rugby at the final whistle, having topped the Championship standings again this season, and head coach Andy Robinson dedicated the result to the locals.
Robinson: “When you see the support we had, the atmosphere, theatre and drama created at Ashton Gate, we are looking forward to getting back into the Aviva Premiership.
“I had total faith in what we had done, the lead we had built up was huge for us.
“I reflected a lot last year on the loss and I looked at the number of times I had won in the last minute, and it evens out.
“I am slightly disappointed to lose the game, we were a bit sloppy at the end. But everyone understood that last five minutes, all that mattered was that we were going up.
“It’s positive to add to the collection of medals, I am really pleased about what. I am really pleased for Bristol Rugby Club and Bristol people.
“I am just doing my job and it’s important. I am very passionate about this club, for me the last three years have been very enjoyable.”
While both Will Cliff and Phillips crossed the whitewash for Bristol, the real star of the show was fly-half Callum Sheedy, whose kicking masterclass saw him notch up 22 points on the night.
The 20-year-old has been the breakthrough star for Robinson’s side in recent weeks having not started a league match until the final day of the regular season.
From almost nowhere he has become the figurehead in Bristol’s promotion, keeping the fit-again Adrian Jarvis and Gavin Henson out of the side, and Matthew Morgan on the bench, and he admits he now cannot wait to test himself at the highest level.
He said: “It’s all a bit of a shock to me (playing a key role) if you had said this to me six weeks ago I would have laughed.
“It’s obviously a nice feeling when the coaches back you but it’s a 50-man squad, not a one-man effort.
“We knew we had to build a score and the forwards were outstanding; they got us in the positions to kick the penalties.
“It’s really exciting but we go back to day one in pre-season and start afresh. It’s all happened pretty quickly, I look forward to the next few weeks to reflect on our achievements.”
Bristol Rugby: Arscott; Wallace, Tovey (Morgan 29), Mosses, Lemi; Sheedy, Cliff (Roberts 79); O'Connell (Traynor 41), McMillan (Brooker 50), Perenise (Cortes 51), Evans, Glynn, Mama, Lam (Robinson 46), Phillips
Yellow card: Mosses (60-70)
Doncaster Knights: Jarvis; Bulumakau, Clark, Hurrell, Lewis; Cusack (Field 47), Heaney; List (Sproston 68), Hunter (Veikoso 55), Quigley (John 58), Challinor, Phelan (Young 51), Shaw (Makaafi 51), Hills, Stedman
Yellow card: List (54-64)
Tries: Cliff, Phillips
Conversions: Sheedy 2
Penalties: Sheedy 6
Tries: Hurrell, Jarvis, Lewis, Stedman, Makaafi
Conversions: Cusack, Heaney, Flockhart
Referee: M Carley