Unfancied Bristol continued to silence their doubters by moving top of the Guinness Premiership after stinging unbeaten rivals Wasps in a thrilling encounter. Bristol’s bonus point victory – secured by tries from Darren Crompton, David Lemi, Dan Ward-Smith and Josh Taumalolo – took them two points clear of Gloucester and Wasps.
They have recorded three wins and a draw from the Premiership’s opening four-game period, confounding bookmakers who made them relegation favourites just a few weeks ago.
Wasps were left shellshocked in front of an 11,000 Memorial Stadium crowd, although they did not help their cause by playing part of the game with 13 men when lock Simon Shaw and prop Peter Bracken received yellow cards.
Bristol fly-half Jason Strange kicked three conversions, while Wasps replied with a Paul Sackey try double, two Dave Walder penalties and a penalty and conversion from Jeremy Staunton.
But it was Strange’s half-back partner Shaun Perry who emerged head and shoulders above his team-mates when the going got tough, keeping Bristol on the front foot by displaying some masterful touches that augers well for his England autumn Test prospects.
Wasps, enjoying their best start to a league campaign since 1997, were boosted by England star Josh Lewsey’s return from hamstring trouble, while ex-Bristol prop Tim Payne took over captaincy duties.
Bristol made an enforced double switch, with flanker Joe El Abd (ankle) and centre Rob Higgitt (nose) both ruled out. Alfie To’oala and Taumalolo were their respective deputies, as Craig Morgan moved to full-back and Samoan sevens star Lemi wore the number 11 shirt.
Bristol boss Richard Hill had predicted Wasps would provide his team with their biggest test of the season so far, yet the home side cruised into a 7-0 lead after just four minutes.
Perry caught the Wasps defence napping through a quickly-taken penalty, and Bristol’s forwards did the rest, driving their opponents backwards before Crompton claimed his second try in successive home games.
Strange rifled over the touchline conversion, and with referee Roy Maybank keen to punish both sides’ technical indiscipline, Wasps, especially, struggled for momentum.
It took the visitors almost 25 minutes to gain a territorial foothold, but their attacking prowess was showcased in style with two quickfire tries that blew Bristol’s defence apart.
Sackey blasted through Bristol centre Sam Cox’s attempted tackle during a 35-metre run to open Wasps’ account, then Walder’s long pass saw Sackey squeeze over wide out as Bristol found themselves five points adrift.
Bristol needed something special to drag themselves back into the contest, and Lemi provided it through a scintillating solo effort.
Lemi utilised all the skills that made him a star on the world sevens circuit during recent seasons by turning Wasps scrum-half Eoin Reddan inside out, then cutting inside Sackey before tearing clear to tie the game.
It was an early candidate for Premiership try of the season, and Wasps lost their composure as half-time approached, seeing Shaw and Bracken sin-binned within 60 seconds of each other.
Former Bristol star Shaw was yellow-carded for a high tackle on Bristol wing Lee Robinson, then Bracken recklessly tipped an opponent from the ensuing line-out and Maybank sent him packing.
Wasps were at sixes and sevens – Walder went off to make way for prop Nick Adams while Bracken cursed his ill-discipline – but Bristol could not make a temporary two-man advantage count before the break, trooping off level at 12-12.
By the time Shaw, Bracken and Walder returned, Wasps were three points ahead thanks to a Staunton penalty, yet Bristol almost regained the lead when Perry’s kick into space only eluded the pursuing Lemi by inches.
Wasps though, lost Shaw permanently on 47 minutes when the England forward limped off to be replaced by Richard Birkett before a bloodied Bracken followed him, allowing Adams his second stint of the game as a temporary replacement.
Flair and panache of the first period was replaced by a more dogged, forward-orientated approach from both sides, but Perry turned the tide through a brilliant touchline break that set up Bristol’s third try.
Skipper Matt Salter sent Perry sprinting clear, exposing glaring deficiencies in Wasps’ blindside defence, and his inside pass allowed Ward-Smith to gallop over for an outstanding score that Strange converted.
Wasps were rattled by Perry’s audacity, and the England scrum-half hopeful then thwarted them in defence by launching a lengthy clearance kick after the Bristol scrum found itself under pressure.
A Walder penalty reduced the deficit to one point, yet Perry remained a thorn in Wasps’ side, and another exquisite kick pinned the visitors deep inside their own 22 with time ticking away.
It gave Bristol’s forwards just the platform they required, and a patient build-up reaped its reward as Taumalolo crossed for the clinching score to leave Wasps reeling.