London Welsh got the point they needed to secure a third consecutive semi-final appearance, but it was a mightily tense run thing at Old Deer Park.
Anything less than a point would have left the Exiles facing a precarious trip to Meadow Lane next weekend, and with ten minutes remaining that scenario seemed a distinct possibility.
A penalty try in either half for the visitors and the boot for former Exile Matthew Jones left the home side trailing 23-6.
In a dramatic finale, however, tries from Vili Ma’asi and Hudson Tonga’uiha ensured Welsh’s name will once again be among the four Championship semi-finalists.
That the home left it so late to secure the point they needed will be a cause for puzzlement as well as frustration. The Exiles dominated the first half, repeatedly finding holes in the Bristol defence, but turning those opportunities into points would prove more difficult.
The home side should have struck just minutes in when James Lewis took a great line off Alex Davies and cut straight through the heart of Bristol, but Joe Ajuwa couldn’t take the pass. It was a pattern that would be played out several times before half-time.
Instead, the first points went to Bristol and the boot Jones, but that seemed merely an interruption as Welsh were soon back on the attack, asking more questions of the Bristol defence.
Gordon Ross stabbed a kick through for Nick Scott to chase and Bristol were forced to offer up a five-metre lineout, but again Welsh couldn’t make the most of the opportunity.
The open nature of the game continued with a scintillating passage of play. Ed Jackson burst clean through from his own and ate up the ground into the Bristol 22, only to be tackled short, with Bristol turning the ball over and countering through Fautua Otto.
The high tempo continued as Scott then sliced through, only for play to be brought back for a late tackle on James Lewis and Ross found touch.
Scrum half Jack Moates then became the latest Welsh player to exploit a gap in the Bristol defence, only for his inside pass to find a Bristol jersey. And so the near misses continued for the home side.
Welsh were making the running, but they had nothing to show for it. In contrast, Bristol were making the most of their few visits into Welsh territory and Jones added his second penalty from the ten-metre line.
Patience was the key word for Welsh, and discipline, as a Bristol penalty was marched forward and Jones found touch inside the Welsh 22.
Bristol got their driving maul going and when it collapsed just short of the Welsh line, referee David Rose had no hesitation in awarding a penalty try. Jones added the extras and Welsh suddenly trailed 13-0.
Just as the heavens opened, Alex Davies was presented with his first sight of the uprights as Bristol wheeled a scrum, and the full back did the rest to get Welsh on the board.
Undeterred by their failure to turn their opportunities into point, Welsh continued to move the ball and Ross produced a lovely dummy, and turn of pace, as the Exiles broke out of their own 22.
Ross found Ajuwa on his inside and the wing powered into the Bristol 22, only for the ball to be lost forward in contact. It was another chance gone a begging for Welsh.
Moments later Ajuwa again showed his raw power as he stormed up field and Tonga’uiha carried it on, before Davies’ kick was touched by a Bristol knee to give the home side a great platform for an attacking lineout.
From which, a high tackle on Davies gave the Welsh full back his second sight of the posts, but this time he couldn’t add the points that the Exiles’ play deserved.
Welsh kept up the pressure as Ross found touch, when Bristol were penalised for not rolling away. Hooker Dan George carried it on and when Welsh went wide, Davies found Scott on his inside, only for Welsh to again lose the ball forward just short.
Bristol had the chance to extend their lead in the minutes leading up to half-time, but having kicked to the corner and forced a penalty, Jones again opted to go for the corner, only for the lineout to find Jackson, and in keeping with the nature of the first half Welsh broke down field.
Again, though, Welsh could not find the finish their approach play deserved. Davies’ penalty with the last kick of the half was wide of the right hand upright and Welsh headed back to their dressing room wondering how they were trailing 13-3.
The home side needed a good start to the second half and they needed to score first, but there was defending to be done first as an early penalty allowed Jones to find a good touch in the Welsh 22.
The Exiles got the scrum from the lineout but a penalty to Bristol gave Jones a sight of the posts, only for his attempt to drift wide.
Moates had to go back to clean up Jones’ grubber kick in behind Welsh lines, but Bristol got the scrum and after two penalties against the Exiles’ front row Rose was in under the posts again to award the visitors their second penalty try of the afternoon.
To add insult to injury, French was despatched to the sin bin and Jones converted to leave Welsh trailing by 17 points and down to 14-men.
Welsh might have cut the deficit when Ross’ clever kick was hacked on by James Lewis, but Denbee couldn’t take the ball.
The Bristol maul then came into its own as it edged its way slowly up to the Welsh 22, but all the while the clock was ticking down on French’s yellow card and two quick penalties saw play go from one end of the field to the other and Davies closed the gap with his second penalty.
Straight from the restart it seemed as if the momentum might have swung in Welsh’s favour when Helu saw yellow.
Try as they might, though, the home side struggled to exert any real pressure in the winger’s absence and Jones’ wobbly penalty left the Exiles needing two scores to get the all important bonus point they needed to reach the semi-finals.
But with Helu pacing the sideline, Welsh finally made the breakthrough. A penalty to Welsh at a scrum was prodded into the corner by Ross and replacement hooker Ma’asi crashed over. Davies added the extras and Welsh were back in the game.
Helu looked like he might make an immediate impact upon his return when he threatened to slice through, but when the ball was turned over Ross kicked down field and the chase was on. Bristol got back, but Ajuwa was up quickly and with support forced a five-metre scrum.
Amidst unbearable tension, Jackson picked up and fed Tonga’uiha and the centre forced his way over. Old Deer Park erupted; Davies added the extras and just three points separated the sides.
Welsh weren’t home and dry just yet, though, and Mathew James’ kick flicked the fingertips of Davies on its way into touch just metres from the Exiles’ line. Welsh would have to front up one more time to protect their priceless losing bonus point.
This they did, and when the home side infringed Bristol opted to take the three points on offer to close the game out.
It was a win for Bristol to take them back to the top of Pool A and into the semi-finals, but crucially a losing bonus point for Welsh to ensure that they’ll be joining them there.