Rugby Union: Bristol bristle but Bath prove watertight

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The Independent Online
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BRISTOL, having had the temerity to force Bath's hand, nearly brought off the unthinkable. On this evidence the balance of power in the West country, not to mention England, could be shifting. The startling fact is that the Bath pack suffered the sort of experience almost exclusively reserved for their victims.

The theory was that Bath, who called the game off on Thursday and were forced to call it on again on Friday night, would make Bristol pay. It was Bristol, who have not won at the Recreation ground since 1981, who bristled with aggression. Not only did they prevent Bath from scoring a try they had the home side hanging on for dear life for most of the second half.

Brian Hanlon, Bristol's coaching co-ordinator, has assembled an impressive set of forwards. Not only is it a big pack but it is young and it should get better. Bristol played Bath at their own game and at times outplayed them. What they crucially lack is a playmaker and a vision to exploit the work of the forwards.

Craig Chalmers, the Scotland stand-off, will decide within the next few weeks whether to join Bristol, who have a job lined up for him. A partnership of Chalmers and Kyran Bracken could provide the answer to Bristol's missing link. Whereas Bath frequently attacked using all seven threequarters, Bristol relied on the sterile tactic of launching Ralph Knibbs down the centre and Paul Hull at full-back was strangely ignored in attack.

Nevertheless Bath suffered a shock to their system. 'Mentally the players were somewhere else,' Jack Rowell, the Bath coach said. 'A few strong words were said in the dressing-room.' Bath were not short of excuses, John Hall, the captain, pointing out that they were ill-prepared.

The ground was under water on Wednesday but when Ed Morrison, the international referee who also happens to be a Bristol member, inspected the pitch on Friday he told the RFU it was playable. Bath, who had arranged an alternative game at Richmond, were told that if they did not fulfil the fixture they would forfeit the points. Several players, not to mention the printer of the programme which was published at midnight, had to be contacted at their local pubs and in the case of Ben Clarke the club left a message with the landlord: don't serve him.

Hall described the playing surface as 'appalling' and added: 'The whole situation was ridiculous. Our attitude wasn't right. Bristol exposed a few weaknesses but there's nothing for us to panic about. I don't think you'll see a performance like that from us again.' The sequel is at the same ground, in the Pilkington Cup, in a fortnight's time.

'Bath are more worried about us than we are about them,' Derek Eves, the Bristol captain, said. 'We played against an international pack and we beat them up front. We've got the best second row in the First Division and they're afraid of our line-out.' There is no doubt that the retirement of Gareth Chilcott has left a big hole and Victor Ubogu had an uncomfortable time against Alan Sharp.

Bath have attempted to recruit Simon Shaw, Bristol's 20-year-old, 6ft 7in lock, and are also said to be interested in Bracken. 'We are getting his mail,' a Bath official told Eves. 'Well send it to us then,' Eves replied indignantly.

The proof of Saturday's meeting was in the pudding-like pitch - 'I've played on far, far worse,' Eves said - and while Jonathan Callard kicked three penalties, Mark Tainton missed three. Both defences were superb and it was Bristol who came closest to scoring a try, Alastair Saverimutto twice being held on the line. 'Two more points,' Hall said. But it was Bath who were relieved to hear the final whistle.

Bath: Penalties Callard 3.

Bath: J Callard; T Swift, P de Glanville, M Catt, M Lloyd; S Barnes, I Sanders; C Clark, 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 (Manchester).