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Saracens wake from sluggish start thanks to Petrus du Plessis double

Two tries in 20 minutes from Petrus du Plessis sealed a bonus-point victory against a defiant Bristol side, who had not scored a try in seven years at Saracens. It keeps the defending champions in the hunt for a home play-off semi-final.

In arguably their worst performance of the season, despite naming a XV that included five of their six Lions, Saracens stumbled their way past the Premiership’s bottom side, who led 9-3 at half-time, with two tries from their replacement tighthead Du Plessis and one apiece from Chris Ashton and Nick Tompkins. Saracens, for whom Kelly Brown and Neil de Kock were making their final appearances, remain third but go to Wasps on the final day of the season, two points behind Dai Young’s side and Exeter, who are level on 79.

It may be too simplistic to suggest that Saracens’s celebratory trip to Barcelona after reaching the Champions Cup final was at fault but 10 turnovers conceded in the first half demonstrated their obvious sluggishness. Once Ashton finally broke the Bristol dam there was an inevitability to the result that eventually followed but this victory will not feature heavily on Saracens’ end-of-season highlights reel.

Ashton thought he had scored the opening try on 23 minutes – not for the first time a Bristol grubber kick was blocked, allowing the Saracens winger to hack ahead and beat Gavin Henson to the ball, only to be hauled back for offside. So far back that the penalty was within Henson’s range – 3-0 to Bristol and fully deserved considering Saracens’s error count.

Billy Vunipola was uncharacteristically at fault for a number of those – his handling was poor indeed in the opening half and he was not alone.

Schalk Brits could not hide his frustration when a ball went to ground while Ashton would have been clear in the right-hand corner had he held on to Alex Lozowski’s pass.

Henson has endured his fair share of ill-fated spells at various clubs throughout his career but his stint at Saracens, when he started a solitary match, was particularly forgettable. A second penalty from his booming right boot put Bristol 6-0 to the good, however – and considering he scored all the points the last time Bristol were victorious, in February, it is hard not to think what may have been had the 35-year-old stayed injury-free this season.

Bristol’s first-half lead was not simply opportune, though. They may lack a bit of invention but they have hard, willing runners across the park and, no doubt of concern to the watching Steve Borthwick, they had the ascendancy at the scrum against a pack containing four British & Irish Lions. Indeed, another scrum penalty allowed Henson again to thump the ball through the posts before Owen Farrell, who had earlier missed a routine kick at goal, responded shortly before half-time.

Saracens initially struggled to wake themselves from their slumber at the start of the second half but Ashton had his 14th try in 14 matches – gathering his measured kick down the right touchline after a break from Tompkins. Farrell converted to edge Saracens ahead.

If that was an ominous score for Bristol it took Saracens another 10 minutes to score their second try – Du Plessis shoved over from a lineout drive, shortly after coming off the bench.

Farrell missed the conversion but Saracens had their third try when Lozowski pierced the Bristol defence and found Tompkins on his outside. Farrell then had a try disallowed but Du Plessis was again pushed over in the dying minutes to clinch the bonus point.