Bath may have made their way to the head of pool two in the Amlin Challenge Cup but they discovered the most roundabout route to do so. At times the ball seemed an entirely unfamiliar object and not until a mere ten minutes remained did they kill of the hopes of Newport Gwent Dragons.
If there was an element of class to be found at the Rec, swept in mid-match by torrential rain, it came from Toby Faletau. The Wales and Lions No 8 not only scored the Welsh region’s try but showed perception in everything he did; he could not, however, atone for the fact that the Dragons had virtually no set-piece possession.
Bath dominated the line-out utterly and, after the first quarter, a Welsh scrum was as valuable to Bath as one of their own. But Bath’s handling game let them down. Whenever the likes of Tom Heathcote (right) or Tom Biggs made a break, the ball invariably went down in the Dragons 22 and the experience of Faletau and Richie Rees was sufficient to allow the visitors to breathe again.
The benefit for Bath, however, is the European experience derived by three academy players, of whom Richard Lane scored their first try and Will Skuse made a thorough-going nuisance of himself from the flank. There was also the return at full back – and, for the first time, as captain – of Nick Abendanon, after operations to toe and shoulder during the summer.
“We needed to get control of the group. That was our two-week focus,” Toby Booth, the Bath coach, said. The likelihood is that they will enjoy back-to-back wins over winless Mogliano before Christmas and they have won already in Bordeaux so they can reasonably anticipate an Amlin quarter-final at the very least, but they will need far greater accuracy in future.
Jason Tovey did his utmost to give the Dragons field position but they could not rely on recovering the ball. Their one try came from a counter out of their own 22, good running by the backs creating the position from which Matthew Screech fed Faletau on the left wing and the No 8 galloped clear from 35 metres while scarcely breaking sweat.
His converted try levelled the game after Lane had scored as early as the sixth minute. Abendanon had already shown that his lay-off has not affected his zest for the counter-attack before good approach work by Heathcote and Alafoti Fa’osiliva carried Bath deep into the opposing 22, Abendanon’s long pass freeing Lane for the opening score.
An exchange of penalties between the respective fly-halves left the sides level at the interval and the downpour limited ambition thereafter.
If Bath could not hang on to the ball, they could at least squeeze penalties from the hard-pressed Dragons, and Heathcote added three to his tally with the Welsh slightly fortunate that the admirable Italian referee could not identify the player responsible for a tip-tackle on Fearns as the No 8 headed for the line.
But there was a yellow card for Lewis Evans after a battering run from Fa’osiliva, and Bath finally gained some reward from their improved driving game. When Kris Burton was penalised in the tackle, Bath went for a short-range lineout where Will Spencer, the young lock who enjoyed such a productive outing against Bordeaux-Bègles a week earlier, won the ball and Matt Gilbert was forced over for the try.
“We created a lot but we left some tries out there,” Fearns, named man of the match, said. With a couple of Aviva Premiership games against neighbours Gloucester and Worcester Warriors on the horizon, they cannot afford to be so profligate again.
Bath: N Abendanon (J Joseph, 71); R Lane, M Banahan, G Henson, T Biggs; T Heathcote, M Roberts (P Stringer, 41): A Perenise (P James, 54), R Batty (E Guinazu, 65-70, 77), D Wilson (J-P Orlandi, 41), W Spencer, R Caldwell (S Hooper, 56), W Skuse, A Fa’osiliva, C Fearns (M Gilbert, 70).
Newport: D Evans (L Robling, 66), W Harries, A Hughes, R Wardle, H Amos; J Tovey (K Burton, 66), R Rees; O Evans (P Price, 55), H Gustafson (E Dee, 55), D Way (F Chaparro, 48), M Screech, R Sidoli (A Coombs, 48), N Talei (J Groves, 57), L Evans (sin bin 65-76), T Faletau.
Referee: G Vivarini (Italy).