The Pirates frustrated Phil Parkinson's side and were able to keep their early lead with relative ease before a late equaliser denied their chances of an opening day win.
Story of the Game
It only took three minutes for Sunderland to fall behind. Lee Burge giving away a needless penalty, wiping out Rovers Winger Jayden Mitchell-Lawson as he tried to get to the rebound after Brandon Hanlon's shot. Luke Leahy stepped up, slotting past Burge to give Sunderland the worst possible start to their season.
Sunderland responded well and nearly equalised after 14 minutes. Will Grigg heading goalwards from a Chris Maguire cross, the ball eventually fell to Aiden O'Brien on his League One debut for Sunderland, but his shot was blocked as he tried to force it home from close range.
Overall it was a scrappy half. Both teams lacked quality in possession with Maguire particularly wasteful, overhitting a couple of crosses which would have put Grigg in to score and restored parity.
Sunderland had a couple of penalty claim of their own in the lead up to half time. Firstly on the half hour mark Bailey Wright went down under pressure after a corner but the referee wasn't interested. On 41 minutes there was another penalty shout, O'Brien going to ground under pressure from Mitchell-Lawson but it looked soft and was quickly waved away.
Into the second half and the first half roles were resumed. Sunderland were having a lot of the ball but struggling to make any inroads while Rovers were playing exclusively on the counter and looked a threat going forward.
As the minutes ticked by and Sunderland got more frustrated it seemed as if Anssi Jaakkola in the Bristol goal wasn't going to be beaten. Most of Sunderland's effort were from range and they were easy enough saves to deal with.
The game changed after a double substitution. Lyndon Gooch coming on to bring some creative flair and Charlie Wyke entered the fray looking to score the equaliser that might kickstart his Sunderland career.
The goal came soon after. Full Back Denver Hume driving into the box, his cross was poor but Rovers struggled to clear and the ball fell to Maguire who took a touch to compose himself and smashed the ball beyond Jaakkola.
The game shifted as Sunderland went for the throat, peppering the Rovers goal. They should have scored twice in a minute, first Captain Max Power having a shot incredibly tipped onto the bar by Jaakkola and then from the resulting corner Wyke's downward header was saved off the line by the increasingly busy Jaakkola.
A couple of minutes later Power had a shot cleared off the line as it became a backs to the wall job for Rovers. When the board signalling eight minutes went up it was assumed the assault would continue but it fizzled out with a mixture of time wasting from Bristol and stupid decision making from George Dobson who saw red late on meant it ended one a piece
Sunderland XI: Burge(GK), Willis, Wright (Gooch, 78'), Flanagan, O'Nien, Dobson, Power (c), Hume, Maguire, Grigg (Graham, 67'), O'Brien (Wyke, 78')
Subs: Scowen, Xhemajli, Matthews, Leadbitter
Bristol Rovers XI: Jaakkola (GK), Harries, Ehmer, Kilgour, Little, Grant, Westbrooke, Leahy (Tutonda 73'), Mitchell-Lawson, Nicholson (Hargreaves 67'), Hanlan (Ayunga 55')
Subs: Van Stappershoef (GK), Daly, Hare, Baldwin
Man Of The Match- Anssi Jaakkola
Handed a start between the sticks after Rovers shipped three last weekend at Ipswich he impressed and in the end is the sole reason his side took a point. He was powerless to stop Maguire's goal and made some top draw saves specifically from Max Power shortly after the goal.
Sunderland should be worried
Yet again it was slow and boring at times from Sunderland. The team selection was safe, Josh Scowen, Dan Neil and Jack Diamond have all impressed and deserve to be in the team more than the likes of Dobson and Hume. It has always felt watching Parkinson's team, when it works they are unplayable and rake in the goals (5-0 Tranmere, 8-1 vs Aston Villa U23) but when teams are able to stifle and frustrate Sunderland there is no plan B. This should be a comfortable win for a team of their supposed quality and if they are to secure promotion, games like this need to look easy and today it was far from it.
Rovers might struggle at times but have enough to survive the drop
On a different day it would have been a cricket score but a mix of poor finishing and a MOTM performance from Jaakkola means they leave with a point. Against the top teams in the division they will be beat heavily but against relegation rivals they are dangerous enough upfront to get points on the board.