Bath's rise to the upper reaches of the Guinness Premiership had been somewhat lost in the shadows during a five-week hiatus in the league programme but the limelight returned with this derby victory. It featured an effective combination of youthful English talent, foreign imports and hard-nosed grunt up front.
This was Bath's ninth win in 11 matches and that alone marks them out as a form team, all the more so given they achieved this latest success without four injured members of the front five, Danny Grewcock, David Barnes, Duncan Bell and David Flatman.
Bristol were fresh from a famous outmuscling of Stade Français, the French champions, in the Heineken Cup last week, and must have fancied themselves to do damage in the tight. Bath were having none of it. Steve Borthwick, their captain, ruled the line-out and for all the rantings of Bristol's Mark Regan in the scrum, his pack did not have much to shout about.
Bath had a mini-parade of champions before kick-off as their former centre, and now non-executive director, Simon Halliday continued to drum up support for the £20 million plans to expand the Rec. There were half a dozen veterans of the good old days of the 1980s including Roger Spurrell, who when he was not captaining the side to cup victories at Twickenham was a sometime paratrooper and shepherd. How sweet it must have been for any Bathonian that the two former Bristol players in their XV should score the first-half tries.
After nine minutes Butch James – the South African World Cup winner making his Premiership debut after two appearances in the European Challenge Cup – hoisted a hick towards the right-hand corner. It was a tactic James used several times to good effect as kicks were positioned with a precision which suggested he had been playing on the Rec all his life. This effort required Bristol's full-back, Luke Arscott, to gather and ward off the chasing Bath wing, Andrew Higgins, and a heavy mob arriving in support.
Arscott did the first bit but not the second and Higgins stole gleefully away from the breakdown to dot down. Olly Barkley converted to add to his opening penalty and Bath led 10-0.
Bath were even more direct for their second try. Borthwick palmed back a line-out off the top, Michael Claassens – the other South African half-back – fed James and the fly-half gave an inside pass to Matt Banahan. Bearing in mind the recipient is a wing who stands 6ft 7in this might have been a tactic Bristol cold have anticipated, but they could not stop it. Banahan broke one tackle and, when held by Arscott, popped up a pass from a prone position for the flanker Michael Lipman to run it in. Barkley converted again.
Bristol had shipped 51 points here in the European Challenge Cup last season, but won on their other visit, in the league. A repeat of the former scenario looked more likely at this point, but the visitors recovered some poise with penalties in the 27th and 34th minutes by the fly-half Jason Strange.
Banahan looked a bit groggy towards the end of the first half. Maybe it was altitude sickness. He is a 20-year-old converted lock, formerly with London Irish, who earlier in his career came under the wing – only metaphorically, given his gargantuan size – of the current England head coach, Brian Ashton, in the National Academy. About midway through the second half, with Bath 20-6 ahead after a Barkley penalty, Banahan tackled Alfie To'oala and the collision sent ripples through the nearby Avon.
James' quality use of the boot meant the home side were mostly successful in avoiding the dangerous tactic of kicking to Bristol's Samoan flyer, David Lemi, but you cannot keep a good man down. After 62 minutes Bristol got free on the short side, Shaun Perry fed Rob Higgitt and though Nick Abendanon, the Bath full-back, anticipated Higgitt's pass to Lemi, his tackle was not enough to prevent the score.
Higgitt then conceded a penalty for hands in the ruck, enabling Barkley to make it 23-13. Buoyed by that cushion against a possible fightback, Bath cut loose.
The replacement prop, Paulica Ion, surely a positive influence with that surname, started the move in the Bath half. Higgins and Abendanon took it on and, surging up the left wing, Lipman, James and Shaun Berne combined to send Banahan crashing over. The knockout blow from a heavyweight wing.
Bath: N Abendanon (M Stephenson, 79); A Higgins, S Berne (T Cheeseman, 78), O Barkley, M Banahan; B James, M Claassens (N Walshe, 78); M Stevens, L Mears (P Dixon, 79), L Ward (P Ion, 52), S Borthwick (capt), P Short, A Beattie (J Faamatuainu, 52), D Browne (J Scaysbrook, 76), M Lipman
Bristol: L Arscott; L Robinson, R Higgitt, N Brew (D Hill, 56), D Lemi; J Strange (J Taumalolo, 71), S Perry (capt); A Clarke (D Crompton, 56), M Regan (D Blaney, 71), J Hobson, R Winters, S Hohneck, A Blowers, D Ward-Smith, J el Abd (A To'oala, 50)
Referee: W Barnes (London).Reuse content