Itoje double as Saracens dent Bears' play-off hopes

Mao Itoje scores a try for Saracens against Bristol
Maro Itoje took his tally to five tries for Saracens this season [Rex Features]

Gallagher Premiership

Bristol: (13) 20

Tries: Batley, Thacker Cons: MacGinty, Williams Pens: MacGinty 2

Saracens: (23) 41

Tries: Itoje 2, Segun, Gonzalez Cons: Farrell, Daly 2 Pens: Farrell, Daly 4

Champions Saracens reached the Premiership play-offs as they recovered to beat in-form Bristol Bears 41-20 at Ashton Gate.

Joe Batley's try helped Bristol to an early 10-point lead, but Maro Itoje scored two tries as Saracens struck back to go in 23-13 ahead at the break.

Itoje and Ben Earl were shown yellow cards within a minute of one another in the second half and Bristol struck back through Harry Thacker.

But Saracens held out before Rotimi Segun extended their lead and Juan Martin Gonzalez sealed a crucial try bonus point.

The win lifts Saracens up to second before a final-day game at home to fourth-placed Sale Sharks, with Sarries guaranteed a top four finish after Harlequins lost at Exeter.

But Bristol's play-off hopes rest on beating Quins next week with a bonus point and hoping Exeter and Sale both lose, having seen their six-game Premiership winning run come to an end.

Batley forced his way over from a metre after Harry Randall's sniping fifth-minute break set up field position as Bristol's fast-paced early play caused the reigning champions problems.

AJ MacGinty added a long-range penalty soon after to make it 10-0 before Bristol's Siva Naulago was sin-binned for a 14th-minute deliberate knock-on, with Owen Farrell scoring the resulting penalty.

Despite being down to 14 men Bristol restored their 10-point lead with a second MacGinty penalty before Itoje got Saracen's first try after Ellis Genge's knock-on in his own 22 was pounced upon and the England lock went over after good work from Gonzalez.

Elliot Daly's penalty levelled the scores 12 minutes from the break as Saracens began to establish themselves, and they went in front after Farrell's superb 50-22 kick set up field position and Itoje went over following a close-range line-out.

A second Daly penalty moved Sarries 10 points clear shortly before half-time, and Mark McCall's side did well to repel the hosts after phase after phase of pressure on their own line in the opening five minutes of the second period.

Daly added another three points before Itoje was sin-binned for a head-on-head collision with Steven Luatua with 30 minutes to go before Earl followed a minute later for a ruck infringement.

Thacker was mauled over from a line-out soon after, but Bristol conspired to give up a penalty which Daly converted to increase the gap to nine points. Saracens smartly managed the clock as they returned to a full compliment of players.

Segun's try ended Bristol's hopes as he went over after some lovely interplay before Gonzalez crossed after a superb run from Luci Cinti with 14 minutes to go, having seen Gabriel Ibitoye spurn a good chance for Bristol.

Bears' Noah Heward twice went close as the game went on, but the home side could not find the tries that would give them crucial bonus points.

Bristol director of rugby Pat Lam told BBC Radio Bristol:

"We started really, but unfortunately we made some errors at key times.

"The tempo slowed down when we made those errors and there was a lot of offending and stop start, but we had opportunities that we didn't take.

"Against Sarries the key thing is to be ahead in that second half, we missed key opportunities to take it before half-time and after half-time, so that's the way a game goes."

Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall told BBC 5 Live:

"We didn't start the game and Bristol started very well.

"I'm very pleased with how we handled that, I think that's the key really, handling that maturely, which we did, and getting ourselves back into the game and wrestling the initiative back

"It was important and we continued to have it for the rest of the half.

"We got chucked another big challenge when we were down to 13 men, and we handled that challenge really well.

"So there's a lot to be proud of - obviously you don't want to 13 men, we've got to look at the decisions we took that had led to that.

"But when you are down to 13 men you've got to have incredible work-rate and have a lot of good decisions made by the 13 people who are on the field and they managed to do that."

Bristol: Malins; Naulago, Van Rensburg, Williams, Ibitoye; MacGinty, Randall; Genge, Oghre, Sinckler, Dun, Batley, Luatua, Harding (c), Bradbury.

Replacements: Thacker, Woolmore, Lahiff, Caulfield, Heenan, Marmion, Vakatawa, Heward.

Sin-bin: Naulago (14).

Saracens: Daly; Segun, Cinti, Tompkins, Parton; Farrell (c), Van Zyl; Mako Vunipola, George, Riccioni, Itoje, Tizard, Gonzalez, Earl, Willis.

Replacements: Dan, Mawi, Hoskins, Isiekwe, McFarland, B Vunipola, Davies, Goode.

Sin-bin: Itoje (50), Earl (51).

Referee: Karl Dickson.