Springboks torn apart by Bristol Bears at Ashton Gate

South Africa ‘A’ lose 26-18 in bear country

On Thursday evening, Ashton Gate Stadium and the Bristol Bears welcomed the reigning world champions’ second-string side, South Africa ‘A’, for a historic and entertaining game of rugby, as the Bears faced their first international side since America in 2003, in front of a staggering 26,387 fans.

Based on recent form neither side were looking in particularly good shape prior to kick-off. The Bears had faced defeat in their previous five Premiership games, leaving them tenth in the table, while the touring Boks side had suffered defeat only a week earlier in Cork at the hands of Munster. This made the game all the more important as both teams were in desperate need of a confidence-boosting win.

Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to get my hands on a ticket for the sell-out game, however, fear not as being an employee at Ashton Gate comes with its benefits (well sometimes). While I was restricted to only watching the first-half on a screen, as I cleared my tables in the hospitality lounge, I was able to fully embrace the atmosphere of the game in the second-half as my break came just in time to allow me to make my way out into the stands. This was pretty much my sole reason for picking up the shift so I’m glad I managed to get myself out there.

I arrived at the stadium just before four to help set everything up in preparation for the guests’ arrival. While I’ve done a fair few shifts there now I was yet to do anything on this scale with 600 guests set to make their way into the hospitality lounge. It was manic, to say the least with the bar working at full capacity and the food arriving late, leading to some rather agitated guests, but finally, we managed to somewhat please everyone and get them out on time for the first-half.

While everyone went to go and watch this historic event I was unfortunately tasked with clearing up all of the mess that had been left behind and it really made me think to myself how on earth it was possible for adults to make a table so horribly messy. To be fair, my lack of clearing skills may have had something to do with this. During this time I became aware that I would have my break during the second-half and my desperation to head into the stands to watch the game meant that I had to consume a couple of cold potato croquettes during the first-half as my dinner.

The early exchanges were extremely close with South Africa ‘A’ looking slightly better than the Bears and after just three minutes they took an early lead through a converted penalty after an offside call. But, only ten or so minutes later the visitors suffered a major blow as they went down to fourteen men following a high tackle that the TMO took a while to get to the bottom of. Bristol didn’t really manage to capitalise on this man advantage, however, as a brilliant defensive display from the Springboks meant that the score had only escalated to 6-6 by the time the sin bin was over.

Finally, with only eight minutes until half-time, the game came alive as Bristol showed what they are capable of by producing a fast and deadly attack inside South Africa’s 22. Full-back Luke Morahan threw an outstanding inside pass, just as he was being pulled into touch, to winger Gabriel Ibitoye who had the simple job of running away to score the opening try of the match. As I’m sure you can imagine Ashton Gate erupted and the hosts went into the break with a slender lead, 13-6, after narrowly keeping South Africa out at the end of the half.

This break in play meant for me more service to the customers, however, it was only a short ten or so minutes meaning no real damage was done to my will to live. That was despite someone spilling two pints of Independence and a lemonade all over one of my tables and then doing absolutely nothing about it. I was of course very grateful for this.

The beginning of the second-half followed a similar pattern to that of the first with it being a close contest between the two sides. That was until the 48th minute when South Africa finally broke through the Bristol defence to score a much-needed try. However, the Springboks failed to level up the scores following a missed conversion, which proved extra costly as only a matter of minutes later fly-half Callum Sheedy made the score 16-11 with a fantastic penalty from nearly the half-way line.

This penalty seemed to give the Bears a new lease of life as just before the hour-mark Yann Thomas crashed over from close range to, following a successful conversion, make the score 23-11, putting the home side in complete control. The Springboks obviously needed to respond and do so quickly, however, mistakes dominated their play towards the end of the game as they looked unimaginative and lifeless. To make matters worse for them the Bears opened up a fifteen-point lead through yet another Sheedy penalty.

In the dying embers of the game, South Africa managed to score their second try after a Bristol mistake following a scrum but this was ultimately nothing more than a consolation try as the game ended 26-18 to the Bristol Bears. This represents an incredible result for Bristol even if it wasn’t against the scintillating Springbok’s first team that won the World Cup only three years ago.

So, what was my overall experience working at the stadium during a game of this magnitude? Well, it went much better than I had originally expected and I would even say that I somewhat enjoyed it with there being some particularly funny moments, such as watching one gentleman have a few too many drinks before repeatedly throwing up in the middle of the restaurant. The noises being made were especially entertaining.

Once everyone had left though my ‘fun’ soon came to an end as I was chosen as if by fate, to move a seemingly endless pile of chairs from one room to another. By this point, my legs felt as if they were about to fall off which of course made the task all the more enjoyable. Regardless of this, it was a great pleasure to have been just a small part of such a historic event not only for the stadium and club but for the city as a whole.

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