THERE was a painful sense of deja vu for thwarted Rotherham Titans yesterday as another impressive season reached its conclusion.
Just like the previous week’s first leg, Lee Blackett’s side more than held their own for an hour against Bristol only to fade in the last quarter and see their hopes of a maiden Championship play-off final disappear.
It was not, this time, down to Tom Barrett’s errant goalkicking. The Rotherham fly-half had missed 12 potentially costly points in the west country but, considering that personal setback, showed commendable composure here to kick four from five attempts and see Rotherham on course for a shock.
Indeed, when they led 16-9 on the hour, they were just five points behind on aggregate and the star-studded visitors – with three British Lions present, a vast wage bill of around £4m and having won 21 of 22 league games this term – looked vulnerable.
But yesterday the killer blow came following a surreal passage of play in the 61st minute.
Bristol’s Dwayne Peel, the former Wales scrum-half, twice put the ball into a scrum on halfway down his side’s right touchline and twice saw it, bizarrely, roll all the way through the tunnel and out of the other side.
To happen once was unusual. Twice? It saw great hilarity in the stands and even among the bemused players themselves. It was like the respective hookers either had their legs tied or simply forgot the art of ... well, hooking.
There was no laughing from Rotherham when the ball finally went in a third time, however.
Instead, Bristol No 8 Ryan Jones picked up at the base, flicked to his fellow Lion Peel, who scampered down the blindside into space and found Marco Mama, the robust flanker who busted through full-back Sean Scanlon’s tackle to reach the corner.
Gavin Henson, their other Lion, missed the conversion so they still trailed 16-14 on the day but, on aggregate, the margin Rotherham had to overcome was pushed back out to 10.
Bristol duly brought on their plethora of high-calibre replacements and mercilessly edged home, two of those substitutes –Matthew Morgan and Jack Tovey – combining in midfield for the latter to score the try that put them ahead on the day, too.
“You didn’t see it go (straight) out the third time – if you did, it’d have been out of the (No) eight’s legs,” said Blackett, when asked about that pivotal moment and referring to the fact Peel’s final feed was decidedly crooked.
“You get decisions for and against you and, on that one, it was against us unfortunately.
“Both legs I felt we dominated the first 60 minutes but a lot of credit must go to Bristol and the way they came back in both in the final 20. It was probably Bristol’s experience that told in those 20 minutes, the power they have got and their impact off their bench.
“It made a massive difference in each game and unfortunately, having felt like we dominated for 120 minutes of two legs, that combined 40 was the vital 40.
“You have to be really pleased with how many opportunities we created, though. On another day things could have gone differently. But you look at the scoreline and that reflects the game.”
So, Bristol go on to meet second-placed Worcester Warriors in the two-legged final with the golden goose of Premiership football awaiting.
For Rotherham, who, remarkably given their comparative budget, have reached the top-four two years running under Blackett, there must be a new era.
He, of course, is leaving for the top flight himself to join Wasps as backs coach, the former European champions clearly impressed by the way the 32-year-old has especially got Rotherham’s three-quarters firing, a trait that was on show again yesterday when they were largely superior in that area.
Barrett’s three penalties to the wayward Henson’s two saw Rotherham 9-6 ahead at the break, but they had produced the best attacking moments.
Scanlon made a half-break to unleash Barrett who showed great awareness to kick ahead for Jamie Broadley to start the race.
The winger got to the ball just in time but, under pressure from a desperate Jack Wallace, could not quite get the requisite touch.
Then, towards the end of the half, centre Lloyd Hayes made a brilliant run of his own but could not find any support although Bristol infringed, thus allowing Barrett his third penalty goal. Broadley did dash over from 50m in the 46th minute, Barrett brilliantly landing the goal from touch to stir Titans fans into thinking glory beckoned.
But Henson struck a penalty, Rotherham lost a fourth line-out of the afternoon – and then came that implausible scrum and glut of crucial quality bench players.
Rotherham Titans: Scanlon; Broadley, Hayes, Davies J (Roberts 62), Keating; Barrett, Davies A (White 73); Hislop (Williams 79), Cruse, Tampin (Thiede 79), Maddison (Thomas 73), Robinson, Rieder, Birch (Argyle 73), Morris (Preece 73).
Bristol: Wallace; Lemit, Maule Tovey 40), Henson, Amesbury; N Robinson Morgan 73), Peel; Traynor, McMillan (Brooker 73), Cortes (Perensie 40), Townson, Sorenson (Glynn 67), Mama (O Robinson 73), Lam, Jones.
Referee: Dean Richards (RFU).