Bristol's kids facing an uncertain future

Bath 45 Bristol 8
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The Independent Online

Bristol are laying the foundations of a new team after months and years of fielding sides that might have been sponsored by Age Concern. The problem for Paul Hull, their recently-appointed head coach, is that this team is not yet one of Premiership quality, and won't be for quite some time. Relegation is pretty much a done deal – even Hull, for whom public declarations of optimism are part of the job, confessed here that "it looks like we might be playing our rugby outside the top league next season" – and more worryingly still, there is no guarantee that the West Countrymen will come straight back up.

Even if the likes of Luke Eves, Mark Irish, Wayne Thompson, Redford Pennycook and the Arscott brothers come to full flower quickly – Irish, in particular, looks to have something about him in the loose-head prop department – they might not make it. Not with the great and good of the Rugby Football Union indicating that the principle of promotion-relegation, supposedly enshrined in Premiership law for the next eight years, could be become unenshrined for reasons of economic necessity. Hull would like to know where he stands on this issue, for any closing-off of the corridor will strike at the very heart of his recruitment programme.

The Recreation Ground is no place for kids at the moment; not with Bath, intelligently coached and completely comfortable in their own collective skin, attacking all-comers with such fierce intent. Bristol started horribly, their Red Sea defence opening up to Joe Maddock within five minutes of the kick-off, and while they responded with a try out of the blue for Lee Robinson, an injury to the hooker David Blaney after 18 minutes put them in all manner of strife, not least because Mark Regan, that hard-bitten hound of a tight forward, had cried off with a calf problem.

On came a debutant in Ollie Hayes, a one-time member of the Bath academy who will not turn 19 until next month. To most people's eyes he looked about 12, yet his efforts at the first scrum suggested he might be a baby-faced assassin (unlike Wayne Rooney, who was once famously described as an assassin-faced baby). Sadly, his line-out work was nowhere near as persuasive, and as Bristol had so little to offer away from the first-phase operation, any notion that this might turn into a full-blooded derby contest disappeared into the ether. Hayes did not even get a chance to toast his first appearance with a beer or seven. An impoverished student, he spent Saturday night serving burgers in a local takeaway.

It was quite a day for new hookers, one way or another. Once Alex Crockett, the Bath captain, had claimed his side's sixth try – the bonus point had been secured as early as the 56th minute – Rob Hawkins, a footballing forward with a Sean Fitzpatrick-like penchant for galloping around in the wide channels, gave way to Mark Lilley, son of the old front-row ruffian Chris. Lilley dislocated the ring finger of his left hand in his first tackle, and after having the joint wrenched back into place, he immediately found himself charged with hitting his man at the line-out. Somehow, he managed it.

He was still in a degree of eye-watering discomfort afterwards, but the debutant's buzz dulled the pain. This was just as well, for he found precious little sympathy amongst his elders and betters. As Maddock, the Premiership's leading try-scorer, said afterward in tones of ruthless mockery once associated with the likes of Gareth Chilcott and Jeremy Guscott: "The boy just needs to harden up."

Scorers: Bath: Tries Maddock 2, Crockett 2, penalty, Browne; Conversions James 6; Penalty James. Bristol: Try Robinson; Penalty Barnes.

Bath: J Maddock; A Higgins, A Crockett (capt), S Hape (S Berne, 60), M Banahan (M Baxter, 63); A James, S Bemand; D Barnes, R Hawkins (M Lilley, 73), D Bell (P Ion, 59), S Hooper, P Short, A Beattie, J Scaysbrook (C Goodman, 68), J Faamatuainu (D Browne, 46).

Bristol: T Arscott; L Robinson, Neil Brew, L Eves (L Arscott, 59), Nathan Brew; E Barnes (C Ashwin, 71), S Perry (H Thomas, 49); M Irish, D Blaney (O Hayes, 18), D Crompton (W Thompson, 72), R Winters, N Budgett (D Attwood, 68), R Pennycook (A To'oala, 59), J El Abd (capt), D Ward-Smith.

Referee: D Rose (Warwickshire).