Pat Lam laments front row absentees as Bristol get brutal lesson from Bulls

Khutha Mchunu of Vodacom Bulls breaks past Dan Thomas of Bristol Bears to score his side's second try during the Investec Champions Cup match between Bristol Bears and Vodacom Bulls at Ashton Gate on January 13, 2024 in Bristol, England
Khutha Mchunu crashed over for the Bulls to leave Bristol sprawling - Getty Images/Dan Mullan

Bristol Bears 17 Bulls 31

By Gary Fitzgerald, at Ashton Gate 

Pat Lam lamented the absence of his star front rowers as his Bears were totally out-muscled and over-powered by a high charged and impressive Bulls.

Bristol’s Champions Cup hopes were scattered all over Ashton Gate by South African opponents who were without several big name Springboks.

The hosts sorely missed England forwards Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler as their pack were given a real, harsh lesson in skill and strength as Bulls celebrated a bonus point win.

Bears, who have lost two of their three Pool 1 games, have to hope Bordeaux can do them a favour by beating Sarries on Sunday and keep alive their slim hopes of progressing to the knockout stage.

But Lam was also left hamstrung by his decision to change both props after 33 minutes. It resulted in uncontested scrums in the second half when replacement tighthead Max Lahiff was shown a yellow card for one of a series of offences.

Bristol had been left with no-one to fill the void and the suffering continued in this one-sided forward battle, and Lam insisted: “We were missing Genge and Sinckler, and probably had our youngest front row out there. It was a great experience for them but we didn’t get any rub of the green at scrum time.

Kieran Marmion of Bristol Bears lines up a pass during the Investec Champions Cup match between Bristol Bears and Vodacom Bulls at Ashton Gate on January 13, 2024 in Bristol, England
Kieran Marmion made his first Champions Cup start for Bristol - Getty Images/Dan Mullan

“The key moment was Max’s yellow card and having to go down to 13 men and uncontested scrums. From then on we were chasing the game. We needed to change the front row in the first half because we weren’t getting the rub of the green. It was a big round of games, and is a big loss.”

Had this been a boxing contest it would have been stopped at half-time as the Bears were demolished by their Bulls rivals up front, giving up six penalties to their rivals none.

Bulls were minus their Springboks stars who were in the midst of a specially agreed post World Cup rest period. But they did not need the services of Willie le Roux, Canan Moodie, Kurt-Lee Arendse and Marco van Staden, to overwhelm Bears.

Bristol, who went into the contest on the back of a confidence boosting Premiership victory at Sale Sharks, found themselves trailing 10-0 early despite Bulls losing fly-half Johan Goosen, who had kicked a penalty, to a yellow card for a deliberate knock on.

Wing Sergeal Petersen charged over for the opening try while AJ McGinty and James Williams linked up to send scrum-half Kieran Marmion over for a try in response.

Williams last ditch tackle denied lock Reinhardt Ludwig another Bulls try. But Bristol were struggling to contain the Bulls’ hefty and powerful pack in the set-piece, giving up four straight penalties for collapsing the scrum. It was clearly a concern for Lam who decided it was time for a change. He removed both props after just 33 minutes with Max Lahiff and Jake Woolmore replacing Sam Grahamslaw and George Kloska in a bid to turn the tide. But Bulls continued to enjoy dominance up front, and it took McGinty to the hosts rescue with a crucial turnover with his rivals camped on the Bristol line.

Bristol’s front row failings grew as Lahiff was penalised for driving at an angle at another scrum and this time referee Raynal’s patience ran out and he was shown a yellow card.

It left them with the predicament of having to go to uncontested scrums and sacrificing wing Gabriel Ibitoye at the next set-piece due to a lack of another replacement tighthead.

Bears looked to have avoided any further damage with Lahiff waiting on the touch line to re-enter the fray. That was until he watched replacement prop Khutha Mchunu dive over for a crucial Bull’s try.

Bristol were looking into the abyss, and Bulls were keen to push them into it. Further tries from Elrigh Louw and Jan Hendrik-Wessels put the game beyond the home side.

Bulls had try score Louw sin-binned for foul play at a ruck while late Ibitoye and Magnus Bradbury tries ran in a consolation tries for the hosts but they had been well and truly over-powered by a team celebrating their biggest win in this competition.

Bulls Director of Rugby Jake White, who admitted being without his top players “undermined” Europe’s premier club competition, enthused: “I’m extremely proud of the boys. It’s our biggest win in European club rugby and it was massive.

“The old adage forwards win the game and the backs finish was right again. They were without Genge and Sinckler so we targeted them in that area.”

Bristol overmatched in the face of Bulls’ power: as it happened

05:10 PM GMT

FULL TIME: Bristol 17 Bulls 31

All over at Ashton Gate. The Bulls were more direct, more powerful and, in truth, better in nearly all facets. A happy flight back to Pretoria for the South Africans. Bristol now need Saracens to be thrashed by Bordeaux tomorrow to have any chance of qualification.

05:08 PM GMT

TRY (Bristol)

Magnus Bradbury crosses for the hosts but there are immediate protests from the Bulls. None the less, the try stands.

05:03 PM GMT

77 mins: Bristol 12 Bulls 31

Bulls holding onto possession. They’ll just be looking to get out of this final few minutes without any more injuries. Devon Williams named player of the match by TNT Sports Ben Kay.

04:59 PM GMT

TRY (Bristol)

Lovely hands from Bristol draw in the Bulls defenders. Van Rensburg is left free after the overload and executes the two-on-one perfectly to Gabriel Ibitoye in in the corner.

04:58 PM GMT

73 mins: Bristol 7 Bulls 31

Good from Bristol. This game may be out of reach now but they are really giving it a good go in the closing stages. Van Rensburg steps inside and powers through tackles before Raynal awards the hosts and penalty. Elrigh Louw is shown a yellow card for slowing the ball down.

04:54 PM GMT

70 mins: Bristol 7 Bulls 31

Points needed for the hosts but just as Vakatawa carries deep into the Bulls 22, he’s pinged by Raynal for not releasing.

04:50 PM GMT

TRY (Bulls)

Game over? It might well be now. Bristol look to attack down the right but a loose pass finds its way into the hands of Jan-Hendrik Wessels, who steps into the line cleverly in defence. He runs it in from 40 metres out.

04:47 PM GMT

TRY (Bulls)

Pressure is telling now. The Bulls pound through the phases before Elrigh Louw picks and goes five metres out. He’s tackled initially but overpowers two defenders to twist out of the collison and bowl over.

04:46 PM GMT

62 mins: Bristol 7 Bulls 17

Bulls are really turning the screw here. As time wears on Bristol look to finding it harder and harder to manage the visitors physicality.

04:43 PM GMT

59 mins: Bristol 7 Bulls 17

Virimi Vakatawa comes on for Bristol. Pat Lam throwing on the big guns in search of a strike back here. Moments later, Bulls earn their sixth scrum penalty. It really is killing Bristol here.

04:40 PM GMT

TRY (Bulls)

Harold Vorster makes a clean line break and Bristol are left scrambling. Three more phases before replacement prop Khutha Mchunu crashes over. An easy two points added by Goosen.

04:36 PM GMT

52 mins: Bristol 7 Bulls 10

Superb counter attack from the Bulls. Goosen taps quickly inside his own 22 and launches an attack. The Bulls work in through the hands before Devon Williams weaves inside and outside and puts boot to ball with a neat grubber. Sebastian de Klerk is bearing down on the ball but is shepherded out by the Bristol defence at the five-metre line.

04:33 PM GMT

49 mins: Bristol 7 Bulls 10

Bristol doing an excellent job at managing this Lahiff yellow card. Steady possession through phases inside the Bulls half before they earn a scrum after a Bulls knock on.

These scrums will be uncontested now as Bristol have no more front-row replacements. Bristol sacrifice Ibitoye until Lahiff comes back on.

04:29 PM GMT

46 mins: Bristol 7 Bulls 10

Bulls have a lineout on the Bristol five-metre line but they get their choreography all wrong there. A cheap penalty to Bristol and MacGinty clears his lines.

04:27 PM GMT


Another scrum; another Bulls penalty. Mathieu Raynal warned Bristol and now those words have actions. Max Lahiff is sent to the bin for 10 minutes.

04:24 PM GMT

42 mins: Bristol 7 Bulls 10

Ruan Vermaak gets up gingerly after coming down awkwardly at a lineout. Ruan Nortjé comes on to replace him.

04:22 PM GMT

We are back underway at Ashton Gate

Big 40 minutes ahead for both sides.

04:11 PM GMT

Cold, low quality...but we have a game

Strange half. Maybe it’s the cold, maybe it’s fairly low-quality fare but the atmosphere was a little flat in that opening 40 minutes. Physically, the Bulls look to have Bristol’s number, especially at set piece but with ball in hand the hosts did look dangerous at times, especially through the likes of Ibitoye and Malins.

Quality needs to improve but we do have a game on here. That much is for certain.

04:06 PM GMT

HALF TIME: Bristol 7 Bulls 10

Dan Thomas on the floor again! He earns a vital penalty inside Bristol’s 22 and AJ MacGinty pins Bulls down inside their own half. One last chance for Bristol here...knock-on and Raynal blows his whistle.

04:03 PM GMT

38 mins: Bristol 7 Bulls 10

Bristol waste another good position after Bulls earn a turnover following a barrelling run from Ibitoye. That was a golden opportunity to snare some points before the break.

Bristol Bears' Gabriel Ibitoye (left) is tackled by Vodacom Bulls' Sergeal Petersen during the Investec Champions Cup match at Ashton Gate, Bristol
Bristol Bears' Gabriel Ibitoye (left) is tackled by Vodacom Bulls' Sergeal Petersen during the Investec Champions Cup match at Ashton Gate, Bristol

04:00 PM GMT

36 mins: Bristol 7 Bulls 10

Bristol think they’ve earned a good turnover at a maul but Raynal goes back for an earlier infringement. Bulls down to the Bristol five-metre line but again Bristol come up trumps on the floor. Jan-Hendrik Wessels breaks off the maul on his own and James Williams is straight over the ball.

03:58 PM GMT

34 mins: Bristol 7 Bulls 10

Another scrum penalty against Bristol...that’s five by my count in this half. Yellow card coming next you feel.

03:55 PM GMT

33 mins: Bristol 7 Bulls 10

A break in play and the man/woman in charge of the PA system at Ashton Gate this afternoon opts for ‘Circle of Life’ from Lion King.


03:52 PM GMT

31 mins: Bristol 7 Bulls 10

Another vital turnover for Bristol, this time it’s Dan Thomas on the floor. For all their scrum dominance, Bulls cannot stop Bristol’s defensive work at the ruck.

03:50 PM GMT

28 mins: Bristol 7 Bulls 10

Brilliant work from Van Rensburg on the floor earns Bristol a penalty. MacGinty finds a good kick and it’s a promising attacking position for the hosts...

...which is wasted. Knock-on and the Bulls regain possession and win a penalty from the ensuing scrum.

03:47 PM GMT

Try disallowed!

Looks dubious to me. Ludwig looked to have got downward pressure on the ball after spilling backwards over the line. Mathieu Raynal disagrees...he’s the boss.

03:42 PM GMT

TRY (Bulls)

Reinhardt Ludwig looks to have scored for Bulls but there is a question over the grounding. He looks to have spilled it backwards after a tackle from James Williams but did he then ground it again after that?

03:41 PM GMT

22 mins: Bristol 7 Bulls 10

Pressure back on Bristol after they fail to claim the restart. The Bulls’ Sebastian de Klerk gains 15 metres at least down the right and is brought down just five metres from the Bristol line. They go for the corner after a penalty but then give one away themselves, allowing Bristol to clear their lines.

Magnus Bradbury of Bristol Bears is tackled by Harold Vorster and David Kriel of Vodacom Bulls during the Investec Champions Cup match between Bristol Bears and Vodacom Bulls at Ashton Gate on January 13, 2024 in Bristol, England
Magnus Bradbury of Bristol Bears is tackled by Harold Vorster and David Kriel of Vodacom Bulls during the Investec Champions Cup match between Bristol Bears and Vodacom Bulls at Ashton Gate on January 13, 2024 in Bristol, England

03:38 PM GMT

20 mins: Bristol 7 Bulls 10

Bristol’s Noah Heward departs the action for an HIA.

03:35 PM GMT

TRY (Bristol)

The hosts hit straight back. This time it’s they who go through the phases inside the Bulls’ 22. James Williams breaks a tackle and finds Kieran Marmion running a smart inside line. Game on.

AJ MacGinty nails the extras.

03:31 PM GMT

TRY (Bulls)

Powerful and methodical carrying from the Bulls inside the Bristol 22 and they work and overlap on the left. Sergeal Petersen takes full advantage, skipping inside the covering Bristol defence to cross for the game’s first try.

Kriel converts in Goosen’s absence.

03:29 PM GMT

12 mins: Bristol 0 Bulls 3

Bristol fail to make the most of being just a metre away from the Bulls line after some sloppy handling and the visitors then launch a counter down the right. They eventually earn a scrum inside the Bristol half. A disappointing result after what should have been a scoring position.

03:26 PM GMT


Bristol are finding it tough to break down this Bulls defence but they get a reprieve after Goosen is pinged for a deliberate knock-on. Mathieu Raynal takes another look and wastes no time in sending the Bulls fly-half to the bin.

03:22 PM GMT

6 mins: Bristol 0 Bulls 3

Bulls flash some of their attacking flair as they escape from their own half after winger Sergeal Petersen latches onto a neat grubber from David Kriel.

Moments later, Bulls earn a penalty bang in front of the posts. Goosen nails it and the visitor’s lead.

03:19 PM GMT

4 mins: Bristol 0 Bulls 0

Better from Bristol, who gain metres through a powerful carry from Van Rensburg. The defence from Bulls is very solid as well, with Josh Caulfield hammered in midfield after an inside ball from MacGinty.

03:17 PM GMT

2 mins: Bristol 0 Bulls 0

Oh dear...a dominant early scrum from the Bulls. A massive shunt is followed by an even bigger follow-up push. Concerning early signs for Bristol.

03:16 PM GMT

1 min: Bristol 0 Bulls 0

AJ MacGinty gets us underway at Ashton Gate. Kieran Marmion fails to deal with an Embrose Papier box kick and halfway line scrum for Bulls.

03:14 PM GMT

The teams are on their way out....

Steven Luatua and Marcell Coetzee lead out their two sides.

03:12 PM GMT

Atmosphere bubbling nicely

A record attendance is expected for a ‘European’ clash Ashton Gate this afternoon.

03:04 PM GMT

Drama at Ashton Gate

TNT Sport still yet to switch over the Ashton Gate after a dramatic end to Exeter’s clash with Glasgow at Sandy Park.

Henry Slade thought he’d won it...

Then this happened...

02:59 PM GMT

Few pre-match stats

  • Bristol have made the fewest clean breaks in the Champions Cup this season (6).

  • Bristol have made more maul metres than any other team so far this season (77) and have scored two maul tries.

  • The Bulls have won the second-fewest turnovers so far this season – just nine in the opening two rounds.

  • The Bulls have fielded 34 players in the opening two rounds of the tournament.

02:57 PM GMT

Not sure what to make of Bristol's graphic team on this one...

02:52 PM GMT

Bulls in Bristol

Devon Williams of Vodacom Bulls arrives at the stadium prior to the Investec Champions Cup match between Bristol Bears and Vodacom Bulls at Ashton Gate on January 13, 2024 in Bristol, England
Devon Williams - Getty Images/Dan Mullan
Jake White, Director of Rugby of Vodacom Bulls looks on prior to the Investec Champions Cup match between Bristol Bears and Vodacom Bulls at Ashton Gate on January 13, 2024 in Bristol, England
Jake White, Director of Rugby of Vodacom Bulls - Getty Images/Dan Mullan
Ruan Vermaak of Vodacom Bulls arrives at the stadium prior to the Investec Champions Cup match between Bristol Bears and Vodacom Bulls at Ashton Gate on January 13, 2024 in Bristol, England
Ruan Vermaak - Getty Images/Dan Mullan

02:46 PM GMT

Lay of the land...

Champions Cup...Pool A...where are we? Well Bordeaux top the six-team pool with a perfect two from two record thus far, with fellow French outfit Lyon in second place on seven points. Then come a trio of sides – Bulls, Saracens and Bristol – on five points, with Connacht the only side not to have got a win on the board to date.

What is for certain is that the next two games will have major ramifications for both these sides playing this afternoon. Win and suddenly qualification becomes a real proposition...lose and their Champions Cup dreams may well soon be over.

02:39 PM GMT

This afternoon's venue...

02:36 PM GMT

'Make or break fixture for both'

Bulls head coach Jake White: “We have come here to win, it is that simple. The reality is, this is a make or break fixture for both teams because the reality is whoever wins this match is almost, almost guaranteed a spot in the playoffs,”

“It is a tough competition. Winning one and losing one has left us in the middle of the pool and this fixture will give us clarity on where we potentially will finish. This is a massive game for us because it could influence the next four to five weeks in terms of our planning and travel across both the Champions Cup and the United Rugby Championship.”

02:34 PM GMT

Team news – Bulls

The big news from the Bulls camp is the absence of three of their superstar Springboks. Willie le Roux, Kurt-Lee Arendse and Canan Moodie have not travelled to the UK for this clash. Embrose Paier and Johan Goosen (fly half) will marshal the troops in their absence.

Bulls XV to face Bristol

1. Gerhard Steenekamp, 2. Jan-Hendrik Wessels, 3. Wilco Louw, 4. Ruan Vermaak, 5. Reinhardt Ludwig, 6. Marcell Coetzee (c), 7. Elrigh Louw, 8. Mpilo Gumede, 9. Embrose Papier, 10. Johan Goosen, 11. Sergeal Petersen, 12. Harold Vorster, 13. David Kriel, 14. Sebastian de Klerk, 15. Devon Williams

02:26 PM GMT

Team news – Bristol

Scrum-half Kieran Marmion makes his first Champions Cup start for Bristol this afternoon after his heroic try-saving tackle against Sale last weekend. Marmion is one of three changes made by Pat Lam, with Sam Grahamslaw and George Kloska also coming in. Kyle Sinkler misses out through injury.

Bristol XV to face Bulls

15. Max Malins, 14. Noah Heward, 13. Benhard Janse van Rensburg, 12. James Williams, 11. Gabriel Ibitoye, 10. AJ MacGinty, 9. Kieran Marmion; 1. Sam Grahamslaw, 2. Gabriel Oghre, 3. George Kloska, 4. Josh Caulfield, 5. Joe Batley, 6. Steven Luatua (c), 7. Dan Thomas, 8. Magnus Bradbury

02:25 PM GMT

Plenty on the line at Ashton Gate

Bristol and South African side Bulls meet at Ashton Gate this afternoon in a huge clash in the Investec Champions Cup.

The home side got back on track after a disappointing loss to Exeter at the turn of the new year with an impressive win away at Sale.

Pat Lam’s side snapped Sale’s 12-match winning sequence in the Premiership, with Max Malins and Gabriel Ibitoye starring for the rampant visitors.

Their uneven domestic form leaves them sitting second from bottom in the league but attention now turns to their Champions Cup aspirations.

Bristol won their opening Champions Cup clash in a nailbiter against Lyon at Ashton Gate but after a loss to Bordeaux, they now face what is a near must-win in front of their home fans.

The game is similarly significant for Bulls, who sit two pots above Bristol in Pool 1 but only via points difference.

A powerful victory over Saracens in South Africa advertised the strength of the southern hemisphere outfit but after a loss in Lyon to follow, they must now show their ability to win away from home.

Springbok stars Willie le Roux, Kurt-Lee Arendse and Canan Moodie have not travelled for the side for this one, with coach Jake White preferring to keep them on ice for Bordeaux’s visit to Loftus Versfeld on January 20.

Director of Rugby, Pat Lam, said: “We’ve spoken all week about how we owe our home fans a performance – we were so disappointed with the result against Exeter but we’re relishing the opportunity in front of our record crowd at Ashton Gate.

“This is a huge challenge for us against a Bulls side ranked number one for attack in the URC, so we’ll have to be at our best, as one team, again this weekend.”

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