TWELVE long years of Cup frustration and still no sign of a reprieve. Bristol, once top dogs in the West Country but also-rans for longer than they would care to remember now, must detest the very sight of Bath's all-star band of rugby aristocrats.
An outstanding try from the England loose forward Ben Clarke after 14 minutes proved the decisive score and, for all their huffing and puffing up front, Bristol must have known then that their interest in this season's Pilkington Cup was at an end. Clarke, not so much a thorn in Bristol's side as an entire rose bush, crossed in the right corner after John Sleightholme and Andy Robinson had made the running from a set scrum.
There was never going to be anything other than a tribal atmosphere at the Memorial Ground, which was packed to the rafters with 10,000 spectators - 10,002, if you include the Bristol wings. Sure enough, the opening minutes were gung-ho in the extreme. Two separate and simultaneous fights, one broken nose for the Bristol lock Rob Armstrong, and an early yellow card for his engine-room partner Phil Adams set an ugly tone.
But amid the snarls, Bath set down their marker with a sustained attacking movement that ran out of steam only when Craig Barrow fell offside at the umpteenth ruck. Richard Butland fluffed his penalty attempt, however, giving Bristol hope that their rivals' decision to drop Jon Callard might backfire.
Some hope. Butland had his side on the board within six minutes, and there was a sure sign that this would be his day when, after Clarke's try, he topped his conversion attempt from the touchline but still saw the ball stagger over.
Ten points to the good, Bath were resourceful enough to maintain the gap for most of the match. Every time Arwel Thomas, the profoundly gifted Welsh fly-half, chipped away at the deficit with a penalty, Butland marched straight back up the field to reply in kind.
Yet to the home side's credit, they brought such intense commitment to their thankless task that the champions were never able to break completely free. For all Phil de Glanville's midfield wizardry - his quick and accurate inside passes repeatedly set up overlaps - there was always a tackle from Kyran Bracken or the impressive young Kevin Maggs to stop dangerous raids.
Bristol's forwards, too, proved a handful. Without their two big guns, the new England lock Garath Archer and the England A flanker Martin Corry, they took the fight to the favourites with a rare relish. Alan Sharp, the former Scottish prop now hoping to make his way in the England set- up, had a magnificent afternoon, as did the veteran Adams.
Ultimately, though, De Glanville's men were too classy and too organised. It may have been passionate, but there was an awful inevitability about it too.
Bristol: P Hull (capt); B Breeze, S Martin, K Maggs, G Sharp; A Thomas, K Bracken; A Sharp, M Regan, D Hinkins, P Adams, R Armstrong, E Rollitt, C Barrow, I Dixon.
Bath: M Catt; J Sleightholme, P de Glanville (capt), J Guscott, A Adebayo; R Butland, A Nicol; D Hilton, G Dawe, V Ubogu, M Haag, N Redman, S Ojomoh, B Clarke, A Robinson.
Referee: J Pearson (Cleveland).Reuse content