Bristol 16 Bath 6: Bristol's fire wins back the top spot

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The Independent Online

Bristol on a Himalayan high, Bath down among the dead men. How the worm has turned. In front of a record league crowd last night, the home No 8 Dan Ward-Smith - uncapped as yet, but a bolter for World Cup duty in France next autumn - set the standard for his colleagues as they squeezed Bath to distraction and ended the evening looking down on their Premiership peers.

Lee Robinson, a liability in defence but a very real handful on the front foot, plucked a wonderful kick from the outside-half David Hill out of the night sky and grounded it deep in the final quarter to wrap things up, but this was a victory forged in the fires of the most committed pack around.

Any cooling of interest in the England team, so discredited as world champions that they are flirting with impostor status, is not reflected at professional club level, where the vast majority of genuine rugby folk get their fix. Well over 21,000 spectators sardined into Ashton Gate, half a dozen miles across town from the ancestral pile known as the Memorial Ground, for the 13th league derby since Bristol ended a morale-shredding 21-match losing streak in 1999. Some crowd, some occasion.

Precious few of the current Bristol squad experienced those years of famine, but unfamiliarity with West Country blood ties does not lighten the psychological load weighing down these internecine struggles. Last night, there was even less self-belief about the hosts than usual. Partly, this was down to the significance of the contest. Bristol had passed some serious examinations before Christmas, most notably when they thrashed Harlequins in a game everyone expected them to win ­ very much uncharted territory for the current vintage. But this was of a different magnitude, for the top spot was theirs for the taking.

In addition, there was the hangover from the heavy defeat at Leicester five days previously. Richard Hill, the head coach, had conceded that game by fielding a shadow side, thereby upping the ante for this one. "I looked at the records and decided that we were unlikely to win up there," he admitted. "Not this season, anyway. I saw this match, plus the next two or three, as more important in terms of gathering points. Of course, it was a risk. Had we lost here, questions would have been asked. Quite rightly, too."

His men were certainly at odds with themselves in the opening exchanges and few fell over with shock when Olly Barkley landed the sweetest of 40-metre penalties to give the visitors the advantage they deserved. This prodded Bristol into life, however. Josh Taumalolo would have claimed the opening try after charging down Shaun Berne's clearance, but for the wholly inadequate in-goal areas common to football stadiums. Minutes later, another Pacific islander, the devilishly slippery David Lemi, put himself on the end of the best attacking move of the half, only to fumble the ball as he slid towards the line.

Lemi was within a gnat's crotchet of a score once more when Shaun Perry's excellent high kick left the Bath defence with their knickers in an almighty twist. When Gareth Llewellyn finally notched a five-pointer from a beautifully organised driving maul on the half-hour, there was a whiff of justice in the air.

Despite a second penalty from Barkley, it could have been better still for Bristol. Ward-Smith, a racing certainty for inclusion in the England squad for the forthcoming Six Nations Championship, ripped away from a scrum in centre-field, and but for some cynical interference from the retreating Peter Short, the home side would have been 15-6 ahead at the interval. Short was sent to the sin bin and the penalty was goaled, but the lead was limited to two points rather than nine.

The hosts lost Perry early in the second half, the international half-back having been heavily clattered by David Barnes, the Bath prop who also chairs the Professional Rugby Players Association. It is at times like these that the phrase "conflict of interests" springs to mind. Sadly, it was a high point rather than a low one. David Hill and Barkley missed kickable penalties; the rival hookers, Mark Regan and his protégé Lee Mears, spent time in the cooler for mild acts of skulduggery; occasional drops at goal landed short or drifted wide.

There was no questioning the weight or accuracy of the Bristol stand-off's game-busting diagonal kick for Robinson, though. On a night that offered little in terms of space and even less in the way of eye-catching creativity, it stood out like a beacon.

Bristol: Tries Llewellyn, Robinson; Penalties Hill 2. Bath: Penalties Barkley 2.

Bristol: C Morgan; L Robinson, S Cox, J Taumalolo (B Lima, 68), D Lemi; D Hill, S Perry (B O'Riordan, 49); A Clarke, M Regan, D Crompton, R Winters, G Llewellyn (capt), A To'oala (N Budgett, 78), J El Abd (S Nelson, 61; M Salter, 74), D Ward-Smith.

Bath: M Stephenson; J Maddock, E Fuimaono-Sapolu, O Barkley, D Bory (C Walker, 67); S Berne, N Walshe (A Williams, 73); D Barnes, L Mears, L Ovens, P Short (H Louw, 73), D Grewcock (R Fidler, 73), A Beattie, J Scaysbrook (P Dixon, 61, J Faamatuainu, 76), I Fea'unati (capt).

Referee: S Davey (Sussex).