Bristol back in the Aviva Premiership despite fright from Doncaster
Bristol survived a thrilling comeback from Doncaster to return to the Aviva Premiership for the first time since 2009, despite a 32-34 defeat on the night.
Before a sell-out crowd of 16,084 at Ashton Gate they held off a determined Doncaster and had on rely on the crucial advantage that they had secured in the first leg at Castle Park to see them to glory in the Championship play-off final.
Doncaster had the better of the first half but careless errors saw then go unrewarded as they went into half-time six points down when they could easily have been six points up.
The Knights had missed their chance to build up huge pressure on the hosts and Bristol just had enough in hand to hold off a magnificent late rally from the visitors to record a 60-47 aggregate win.
Bristol's tries came from Will Cliff and James Phillips with Callum Sheehy converting both and kicking six penalties.
Will Hurrell, Tyson Lewis, Ollie Stedman, Latu Makaafi and Paul Jarvis scored Doncaster's tries with Dec Cusack kicking a conversion and a penalty. Michael Heaney and Dougie Flockhart added a conversion each.
Within eight minutes of the start, Bristol had extended their 15-point aggregate lead when Sheedy kicked a penalty but two minutes later this was nullified when Cusack replied with one for the Knights.
After 12 minutes, the hosts came very close to scoring the opening try. Sheedy and Cliff made dents in the home defence before a flying David Lemi was forced into touch, five metres from the try-line by some desperate defence.
Despite this near miss for Bristol, some penetrative runs from Hurrell and excellent kicking from Cusack enabled the visitors to have marginally the better of the opening quarter but at the end of it the sides were level at 3-3.
When the home side were penalised at a scrum, Cusack had a chance to put his side ahead for the first time but he blazed wide with a straightforward kick. It was a bad miss as Doncaster sorely needed a score to reward their efforts and put pressure on the hot favourites.
After 29 minutes, Bristol suffered a setback when Jack Tovey left the field with a shoulder injury. He was replaced by Matthew Morgan, who made his final appearance for the club before joining Cardiff Blues for next season.
A poor kick from Doncaster full-back Jarvis forced his team into conceding a penalty, which Sheedy kicked before the outside half added another to give Bristol an unmerited 9-3 advantage.
The visitors then deservedly took the lead for the first time when the powerful Hurrell brushed aside Sheedy's weak tackle to score under the posts but they were only ahead for a mere minute as Cliff charged down a Heaney clearance to score. Sheehy converted to put Bristol 16-10 ahead at the interval.
A spirited Doncaster were not going down without a fight and within four minutes of the restart, they looked to have scored a second try when Mat Clark went over but after consulting the TMO, the referee ruled out the try for a crossing offence.
Bristol received another injury blow when influential flanker, Jack Lam, was helped off with a leg injury but they overcame this to extend their lead with three further penalties from Sheedy, the second after Doncaster prop, Richard List, was yellow carded.
However Doncaster continued to battle and scored their second try through Jarvis before Ben Mosses was sin-binned for a high tackle and then Olly Robinson stretchered off.
Lewis ran straight past Morgan to score a third try before a fourth from Stedman 12 minutes from time had Bristol nerves jangling but the return of Mosses calmed them and Phillips' late effort proved to be the decisive score.
Doncaster had the final say when replacement, Makaafi scored their fifth try, which Flockhart converted to give his side a thoroughly deserved victory on the night.