Ten thousand and ninety-four bemused ticket-holders at the 10-9 win at Bristol with which Bath precariously maintained their lead of the Courage Clubs' Championship were beginning to wonder what was the point when a fractious first half, typical of thesederby occasions, passed by cardless.
Eventually the captains were taken aside after half an hour by the reluctant Stewart Piercy and things quietened until finally, with 12 minutes left, Graham Dawe was shown yellow for an offence - the eye-gouging of Alan Sharp - which should have brought red.
You would have had short odds about Dawe, England's reserve hooker, being the recipient of that first card. His own estimation of 100-1 was a good joke, but even funnier was his indignant description of himself as "proud to be the Gary Lineker of rugby" because he had never been "booked" or dismissed.
As bookings have never been part of rugby, this is a less commendable record than he would have us believe. But later Dawe, the sort of man you would want alongside rather than opposite you in the trenches, protested his innocence even though after the incident Sharp could see clearly out of only one eye.
Brian Hanlon, the New Zealander who coaches Bristol, was as perplexed as he considered Piercy to have been. "I don't think he ever realised who was at fault when the fights were going on," Hanlon said. "When he did produce it, I don't know if a yellow card for eye-gouging is the right penalty."
It was a rum business. Dawe began by claiming Piercy had penalised him for "squaring up" to Sharp but then conceded that gouging had after all been mentioned. "When he called me across, he said something about it," Dawe said.
"How was it eye-gouging? It certainly wasn't eye-gouging. Maybe he needed an excuse to give a yellow card. Maybe the referee was on a high. He did milk the situation. He wanted his name in the paper and you can't blame him."
Dawe had wanted to explain himself but "when has a player ever been allowed to talk to a referee and give an excuse? He reckons he saw me but I don't see how you can see something that didn't happen."
Piercy is a referee who made his name when he sent a number of Harlequins to change their studs during a notorious cup tie at Waterloo two years ago, and then declined to give any explanation of his actions. Now he is on the RFU's international panel.
He endeared himself neither to Bristol nor Bath - which in some circumstances would mean he had had a decent game. As it happened, the penalty which followed Dawe's indiscretion was a good 15 yards further from the Bath posts than the blatant offside which had preceded it but been ignored by Piercy.
Mark Tainton, who had kicked all three of his first-half penalties to build Bristol's nine-point lead, duly missed, and within eight minutes had missed another two. That made Bath as lucky to win as they would have been unlucky to lose.
There is a moral here somewhere. "When you are the top team in the country the bounce of the ball always goes your way, and Bath are certainly the best team in the country," Hanlon said. The best not only at bringing the best out of themselves but also the worst out of their opponents.
"I've never seen a Bristol team in the year-and-a-bit I've been here in a fight, yet here there must have been a dozen," he sighed. "I've never seen such ill-discipline from a Bristol team and if a bit of rubbish was coming in from Bath they should have walked away from it."
This is easier said than done. But as Hanlon realised, Bristol, having made their guarded game-plan work for them for the 20 minutes it took for Tainton to kick his penalties, allowed themselves to be rattled by the rough stuff and - though Derek Eves, the captain, would certainly deny it - by Bath's virtual invincibility against them.
Hanlon admitted: "The players know what is required - 80 minutes of 100 per cent effort - but when Bath scored their try I saw players say `oh no, here we go again' and immediately we went off the boil." The gruesome record of the past dozen years shows what he means.
This was the 23rd Bath victory in the 24 fixtures between these anatgonistic neighbours since 1983 and, considering that since 1888 Bristol have won 124 to Bath's 63, the recent reversal of fortune is extraordinary and dramatic. Bath have won all 10 of the league encounters but only once by more than nine points.
Yet again it was Bath's propensity at the crisis-point for digging into their deepest resources that brought them victory. Instead of playing for position as they had at the outset, Bristol became too ambitious for Hanlon's liking at the same time as Bath were characteristically increasing their own tempo.
One grand old Bristolian, the former England scrum-half Bill Redwood, suggested that this - the ability to play at pace when it suited - was the advantage Bath held over all their First Division rivals, and it produced a try worthy of a thrilling occasion. (So excruciatingly thrilling that certain Bristol committee men who could stand it no longer went inside to calm their nerves in front of the rugby league on the box.)
As Philip de Glanville was Bath's most penetrative runner throughout, it was appropriate that it was his run that committed so much of the Bristol defence that when the ball came back there was an overlap which Olson, Catt and Guscott decisively exploited on behalf of Simon Geoghegan.
Jonathan Callard's conversion reduced the margin to two points and, with 48 minutes remaining, Bristol's demise appeared to be a matter of time. That it took so long, another 32 minutes, before Callard at last potted the winning penalty, was a tribute toBristol resilience as well as the tries that, for one reason or another, eluded Bath.
Still, for Dawe to suggest that Bath were "30 points better than Bristol" was as fanciful as the notion that he has the angelic disposition of a Lineker. In the murkier recesses Dawe can be the very devil. So can Bath, which is why they win tight games like this. And for that, even Brian Hanlon salutes them.
Bristol: Penalties Tainton 3. Bath: Try Geoghegan; Conversion Callard; Penalty Callard.
Bristol: D Bennett; D John, R Knibbs, D Wring (M Newall, h/t), G Sharp; M Tainton, K Bracken; A Sharp, M Regan, D Hinkins, S Shaw, A Blackmore, R Armstrong, I Patten, D Eves (capt).
Bath: J Callard; A Swift, J Guscott, P de Glanville, S Geoghegan; M Catt, M Olson; C Clark, G Dawe, J Mallett, M Haag, N Redman, J Hall (capt), B Clarke, A Robinson.
Referee: S Piercy (Goole).Reuse content