Cornish Pirates made an early break for a top-four Championship finish by beating their great play-off rivals Bristol at Mennaye Field yesterday.
Last season's Championship semi-finalists are both battling to reach the same stage this term, so yesterday's 32-17 result was significant.
Particularly pleasing for head coach Ian Davies was the acquisition of a four-try bonus point after touchdowns from Phil Burgess, Kieran Hallett, Ben Mercer and Tom Riley. Bristol, meanwhile, left Cornwall empty-handed.
Davies said: "I wanted us to take four league points and leave them with nothing. We knew, if we did that, we would go fourth in the table. With conditions the way they were and the fact we were playing Bristol, I didn't think we would be able to get the bonus point as well.
"To come away with five points is fantastic and we couldn't ask for more than that or a better start to 2013."
Such an outcome seemed unlikely during a scruffy opening to yesterday's match.
The Pirates won a penalty almost straight from the kick-off, but fly-half Hallett missed despite being allowed two attempts from just outside the 22 – the first miss came when the wind blew the ball over just before he struck it and the second after he was sportingly allowed to try again by visiting captain Ruki Tipuna.
Hallett got another chance and made better contact with his kick to give the Pirates the lead.
The first try soon followed for the home side. Both sets of backs traded high balls before Pirates full-back Wes Davies decided to run it forward. He chipped over the Bristol midfield and, although his run was stopped off the ball, Burgess made up the ground and showed fine footballing skills and pace to dot down after kicking and chasing around the scattered Bristol defence.
Hallett added the conversion and then a drop goal as the hosts dominated territory and possession in the first half.
The visitors came close to scoring with one menacing-looking forward drive but the Pirates repelled them and touched down their second try moments later. Hallett, who was in the midst of his best performance for the club since his summer move, completed a fine home move for his side's second try – but he failed to add the extras.
Bristol gave themselves hope, breaking into the Pirates' 22 and earning a penalty, which fly-half Adrian Jarvis scored to bring the deficit back 15 points at the break. It was the lift they needed and they returned for the second half a much-improved side, putting the Pirates under severe pressure. It soon told with Tipuna setting up prop Kyle Traynor for their first try, with Jarvis converting.
The shift in momentum saw the Pirates make more mistakes. Wes Davies kicked straight into touch and then a home line-out with overthrown as the blue and white shirts poured forward.
It felt as though the next score would be crucial and it was the Pirates who got it through Mercer, who squeezed in on the left for a try converted by Hallett.
Bristol still came forward, but it was clear a large part of their second-half resolve had been broken and the hosts were motivated by the prospect of a bonus point, if they could find one more try.
A yellow card for prop Jason Hobson hardly helped Bristol's cause. He smiled and mockingly gestured that his feelings had been hurt as he was booed to the sidelines.
With their pantomime villain off the field temporarily, the visiting side were rarely a threat to Pirates. That continued until replacement Marco Mama scored his side's second try, converted by Jarvis, in the final five minutes. It mattered little as the game was already safe and the Pirates' agenda had changed to chasing that potentially crucial bonus point. They kicked a late penalty into the corner and it proved to be the right decision, with Riley coming in at pace into the Bristol 22 and crashing over under the posts for a try converted by Hallett.
It was just reward for a street-wise and highly motivated performance from the Pirates. They begin the new year in a strong position, in the British and Irish Cup as well as the Championship – 2013 promises more intriguing times for the Penzance side.