A liberal sprinkling of Bristol's last cup-winning side congregated at Ashton Gate yesterday to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their wonderful victory over Leicester, and they may well have left the ground wondering whether the sport has taken much of a step forward in the last quarter of a century. The great self-policing dynamic of the boots-on-bodies ruck has been outlawed, defensive alignments have cut space to a bare minimum and – worst of all, by far – no one drinks much any more. Progress? The old hard-heads have their doubts.
On the other hand, it could be argued that parts of the game are a dozen times more demanding now than when the likes of John Doubleday (a farmer) and Austin Sheppard (an undertaker) were knocking seven bells out of all and sundry at scrum and maul before indulging in a quiet pint at the bar, inevitably followed by a dozen noisy ones. The tackling has certainly risen up the Richter Scale. When the '83ers made their lap of honour before kick-off, the hooker Kevin Bogira (an engineer) was on crutches. By close of play, a fair few of his successors were finding it equally difficult to move around.
West Country derbies of this particular stripe are never less than brutally physical, and both sides dished out the usual here. Bath were good value for their narrow victory – their first in Bristol for a decade – because their inside backs, Olly Barkley and Shaun Berne, raised themselves above the common herd and actually played some football, but it took them until the 85th minute to work Andrew Higgins, their substitute wing, over for a try. It was that sort of occasion: hard and heavy-duty, but lacking in pizzazz.
"They're better than us, basically," said Richard Hill, the director of rugby at Bristol, of his old club. "In fact, I think they're the best side in the country at present. We had to work terribly hard to hold them – quite how we led at half-time, and restricted them to one try over the course of the contest, is a mystery to me – and if I'm pleased about anything, it's that they leave here with as many wounds as us. Mind you, it didn't help our cause, not being at the Memorial Ground. We win our games primarily because people don't like playing us there. This was effectively a neutral venue, and we're the kind of side who need all the advantages we can get."
Bath were certainly the classier outfit, and as they now find themselves within three points of the leaders Gloucester with a fixture in hand, they are set fair to play a major part in the Premiership shake-up over the next 10 weeks or so. When a scrum-half as quick-witted as Michael Claassens is providing the link between a slab of a forward pack and a midfield boasting the full range of attacking skills, more good things than bad are likely to happen.
The visitors might have given their hosts a serious tanking had they taken either of the heaven-sent scoring opportunities they created for themselves in the space of a couple of minutes just shy of the interval, but they butchered both, Matt Banahan spilling a scoring delivery from the industrious Andy Beattie close to the line and Michael Stephenson overrunning Joe Maddock's pass – a basic error that resulted in a scrum for Bristol rather than a nice little five-pointer in the right corner. When an injury-littered 50-minute half finally reached its conclusion, the home side were ahead by the odd penalty in five.
Stephenson and Claassens both started the second period with a hiss and a roar, cutting holes in the opposition defence in a raid that allowed Barkley to square it with his third successful kick, but, strangely, this development signalled an upturn in Bristol's fortunes, not Bath's. For the first time in the match Matt Salter and his gnarled forwards dished out some punishment and when David Lemi was tackled off the ball by Alex Crockett, it seemed a decisive moment had been reached.
Crockett was sent to the cooler and Bristol, a man to the good, had a five-metre line-out to savour. They rarely miss from there, but the Bath forwards manned the barricades to considerable effect, bringing the home side's trademark driving maul to earth while just about staying on the right side of the law and then clearing their lines. They would be threatened only once more, when Joe El Abd pilfered a line-out overthrow from Lee Mears from an offside position. That aside, the final quarter belonged to the men from the Georgian city.
Barkley, steady as you like in the face of some wrecking-ball tackles from Andrew Blowers and Alfie To'oala, put his side ahead when El Abd slipped in the side of a maul in front of his own sticks. Then, deep in stoppage time, a thoroughly battered Michael Lipman found Maddock with the smartest of passes out of contact and the full-back plotted a straightforward route to the line for Higgins. Barkley's wide-angled conversion was a pearl.
"I was surprised England didn't include Olly from the start of the Six Nations but then, it's not the only thing I'd have done differently," said Steve Meehan, the Bath coach, whose efforts to keep Barkley at the Recreation Ground on a fresh contract petered out when the midfielder announced a move to Gloucester at the end of the season. "I think the way we're playing the game suits his style and he's shown real strength of character in performing as he has in recent weeks."
This last comment was a reference to Barkley's trial on an assault charge at Aylesbury Crown Court next month – a charge he denies. Quite what England do with him when his legal business is concluded is anyone's guess, but if he is available to tour New Zealand in the summer they would be daft not to take him. There were moments yesterday when he looked on top of his game and in rugby terms, that is a lofty height indeed.
Bath: Try Higgins; Conversion Barkley; Penalties Barkley 4. Bristol: Penalties Barnes 3.
Bristol: L Arscott; A Elliott (S Cox, 40), R Higgitt, D Hill, D Lemi; E Barnes (J Strange, 80), B O'Riordan (H Thomas, 80); AClarke (D Hilton, 80), S Linklater, D Crompton, G Llewellyn (R Winters, 58), S Hohneck, M Salter (capt), J El Abd (A To'oala, 71), A Blowers.
Bath: J Maddock; M Stephenson, A Crockett (T Cheeseman, 80), S Berne, M Banahan (A Higgins, 65); O Barkley, M Claassens (M Baxter, 80); D Barnes (D Bell, 7-8 & 23; Barnes 74), L Mears, M Stevens, P Short (M Purdy, 80), S Borthwick (capt), A Beattie (C Goodman, 59), M Lipman (Goodman, 40-41), D Browne.
Referee: D Rose (Warwickshire).