Wherever Rotherham play next season – the dispute over their future at Clifton Lane remains unresolved – it is hard to imagine any ground staging a more dramatic end to such an entertaining contest from which the Titans emerged with substantial credit.
Remarkably, in the fifth minute of stoppage time, fly-half James McKinney, who had already put over two conversions and two penalties, was presented with an opportunity right at the climax to level the scores.
Indeed, the Ulsterman was lining up to convert his own and Rotherham’s third try which continued a memorable recovery by the Titans, who earlier were losing by 20-6 and then by 27-13.
Tries by forwards Alex Rieder and Ali Birch on 65 and 70 minutes, both converted by McKinney, slashed Bristol’s lead to 27-20, and the side, containing three British Lions in centre Gavin Henson and forwards Ryan Jones and Ian Evans, were suddenly looking insecure.
Bristol’s frailty then grew as the Rotherham forwards applied even more pressure on the opposition’s line during a thrilling climax.
McKinney joined the pack in the drive from the lineout and, amid the chaos in Bristol’s defence, grabbed the ball to touch down.
Rotherham were now, to everyone’s disbelief, not least Bristol’s, in with a chance of sharing the spoils as only two points at 27-25 separated the teams.
Few players would have wished to have been wearing McKinney’s boots as he prepared. Unfortunately, on this occasion, his conversion flew wide. So, Rotherham, harshly, given their efforts against the Championship leaders, earned only a losing bonus point.
With Nottingham beating Moseley – Rotherham’s next opponents on Friday – this defeat is a setback; but while they have dropped to fifth, with four league games remaining against Moseley, Doncaster, Nottingham and London Scottish, a top-four finish and a place in the promotion play-offs is still possible.
“We have to beat Nottingham. They’re now two points clear of us and it’s going to be a winner- takes-all game,” said McKinney.
“The next four matches are going to be a real challenge and it’s going to be difficult in Moseley on a Friday night, but we are confident.
“With the exception of the first 10 minutes in each half against Bristol, we played pretty well. I made a bit of a mess of the conversion at the end, but you have to give massive credit to the boys for getting us back into the game where a draw was possible. Looking back, there was a period of 20 minutes when we struggled and let them dominate territorially and on the scoreboard.”
The latter was certainly the case on 69 minutes as Bristol were allowed to score an easy converted fourth try by No 8 Mitch Eadie that made it 27-13.
Rotherham’s error was shocking. After the penalty by Matt Morgan missed the posts, not one defender tried to collect the ball. While Rotherham slept, Eadie pounced to stroll in for a try which gave Bristol a bonus point.
This grave blunder ignited Rotherham’s forwards, who broke through a minute later with flanker Birch fighting his way over to revive the Titans.
The excitement gathered momentum as Rotherham’s pack continued to attack. The Premiership contenders were put under severe pressure on their line. Prop Kyle Traynor was sin-binned and with Bristol reduced to 14 men, Rotherham capitalised to score a third try to set up a theatrical finale, but one which, ultimately, was not productive.
“I’m proud of the commitment we showed, but I’m very frustrated,” said Rotherham coach Lee Blackett. “It was a game to be won. I thought the way we started in the first half and the second cost us. When we look back, we’ll say we let this game slip.
“The fourth Bristol try was a moment of madness and this was always a game that would be won or lost on small margins. Against a team of Bristol’s quality, you can’t afford to be gifting them points like that.
“We showed great character in both halves, everyone is frustrated and we were unlucky not to get a draw at the end.”
Rotherham Titans: Scanlon, Keating, J Davies, Cooke, Wilson, McKinney, White (A. Davies 67), Hislop (Williams 78), Cruse (Dunn 60), Tampin (Thiede 60), Holmes, Maddison, Rieder, Preece (Birch 69), Morris (Ryan 53).
Bristol: Wallace, Amesbury (Tovey 34), Maule, Henson, Lemi (Robinson 48), Morgan, Hampson, Traynor, McMillan, Cortes (Perenise 65), Glynn, Evans, Jones, Lam, Mitchell.
Referee: D Richards.