Rugby Union: Barnes exerts a quiet control

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Bath. . . .9

Bristol. . 0

BATH it finally was - though a mud-bath to be precise. And in the treacherous mire of the Recreation Ground, the reigning champions very nearly slipped from the path to this season's title. With only three penalties as a buffer, they were shunted back on a surface that might have better suited Torvill and Dean than the likes of the prop Victor Ubogu.

Lashings of sand had failed to take enough moisture out of the pitch to allow any real sure- footed play. But the surface was certainly better than Bath officials had maintained before it was ordered that the game be played - their claim that the pre-match toss of the coin would be to decide who defended the deep end was somewhat overdone.

Bristol had been insistent that the derby game be played despite the home club's objections, because they felt the conditions would serve their forwards better.

And so it proved in a dogfight better suited to terriers than greyhounds. The Bristol forwards harried and chased their more illustrious opponents to within a whisker of defeat. They tore into them in the loose for the last half-hour, and for long spells stayed close to the Bath line.

But in the end tenacity alone simply was not enough. The Bath defence never quite broke. Stuart Barnes, the sometimes England outside-half, played a crucial role quietly. He controlled play whenever the ball reached him and his occasional long kicks relieved relentless pressure at crucial moments. The accurate place kicking of the full-back Jonathan Callard did the rest.

It was a triumph of discipline and skill over determination. The No 8, Ben Clarke, was invariably the spearhead of the Bath rolling maul. He is also that rare beast - a sinking forward who knows when to let the ball flow and when to keep it close to his chest.

Bristol probably missed Kyran Bracken at scrum-half more than Bath missed Jeremy Guscott in the centre. But heroic defeat is not much good to a team who are perilously close to the First Division's bottom edge. Bristol need something more than bravery to beat the very best.

Bath: Penalties Callard 3.

Bath: J Callard; T Swift, P de Glanville, M Catt, M Lloyd; S Barnes, I Sanders; C Atkins, G Dawe, V Ubogu, M Haag, P McCoy, A Robinson, B Clarke, J Hall (capt).

Bristol: P Hull; D John, A Saverimutto, R Knibbs, S Crossland; M Tainton, R Kitchin; A Sharp, M Regan, D Hinkins, S Shaw, A Blackmore, B Armstrong, C Barrow, D Eves (capt).

Referee: D Leslie (SRU).