When Saracens players became available for hire following the champions’ relegation, some directors of rugby declined, worried they would be fattening them up for a year for a rival. Others, such as Bristol’s Pat Lam, took a different view and recruited two.
Ben Earl has already made his mark with the Bears, but Max Malins has tended to be part of makeshift sides. on Sunday, with his side 26-0 down after Wasps had secured the second-quickest try bonus point in Premiership history, three minutes slower than Harlequins in 2004, he stepped up.
He was twice involved in a move that led to the wing Niyi Adeolokun being denied by a foot in touch, shimmying through tacklers, before he scored a solo try from 30 metres, leaving Jack Willis standing, and receiving the ball on his 10-metre line, again left defenders hanging before an interchange of passes with Piers O’Conor led to the centre scoring on the left.
If the cameo meant little to the outcome of the match, it gave Lam something to reflect on before the European Challenge Cup quarter-final against the Dragons at Ashton Gate on Friday. Malins was playing at fly-half but his other two starts for the Bears were at full-back and his ability to make much from nothing fits into Lam’s determination to push boundaries.
The mark left by Malins was eroded by Wasps, who were close to full strength against top-four rivals operating with reserves five days before the Dragons. The home side wasted no time banking the bonus-point victory that ensured they finished the day with a place in the top three, exploiting a defence that operated as if social distancing rules applied on the field.
Jack Willis scored the first from close range after 49 seconds, Josh Bassett helped himself to the second after a training-ground move from a lineout caused confusion, Tom Cruse was at the bottom of a driving maul for the third and Will Rowlands muscled his way over for the fourth.
Wasps then stepped back, as if their mission was over. Malins shook them out of their reverie before Zach Kibirige scored at the end of the opening half to make the interval score 31-14. Kibirige gave Dan Robson a scoring pass five minutes after the restart following Jimmy Gopperth’s weighted chip and a penalty try for collapsing a scrum left Bristol 31 points behind.
Malins’s second try, after he fed Bryan Byrne with a long, flat pass, and looped round the hooker, gave Bristol the scent of a bonus point. It arrived seven minutes from the end and may prove precious in the jostling for a place in the top four. Four tries completed the frolic, two from each side with the home second-row James Gaskell sent to the sin-bin for collapsing a maul on his line.
It was Wasps’ ninth league victory in 10, eight garnished with a bonus point. “We are in a good place, but it was disappointing to concede a bonus point because we spoke at half-time about not giving it to them,” said their captain, Joe Launchbury, who was ordered from the field early by his medics to protect a calf strain.