There was a time, not so very long ago, when Nathan Catt was the talk of the coaching community. "He will, without a shadow of a doubt, play for England," Rob Andrew predicted shortly after moving to Twickenham as director of elite rugby in 2006, when the loose-head prop was still in his teens and tripping the light fantastic with his ultra-modern all-court game. Since then... nothing much. Certainly not a cap. Over recent seasons, Catt has become a sporting yeti: often talked about, seldom seen.
At the Recreation Ground yesterday, London Irish saw far too much of him for comfort. The Exiles tend not to lose heavily at Premiership level – indeed, their ability to minimise the impact of defeat by securing losing bonus points has been central to their operation for some years – but Catt and his fellow tight forwards denied them so much as a half-chance of taking something tangible from this game.
Catt was off the field when the Bath pack drove the visitors' scrum backwards into penalty-try territory with five minutes left on the clock, but the foundations had been laid, the real damage done, long before that final scoring act. He hurt the Exiles at the set-piece – no mean feat against an opponent as capable of the Romanian prop Paulica Ion, one of the outstanding tight-head specialists at the recent World Cup – and dished out double helpings of pain around the field. At one point in the first half, he helped his side secure a strike against the head before going within inches of scoring from the ensuing attack.
Quite why he has waited this long to start throwing his weight around is something of a mystery, although there was once some talk among the West Country cognoscenti that he was rather too aware of his own talent: hence, perhaps, the comment of a Bath elder who, presenting the youngster with the "most improved player of the year" gong a couple of seasons back, pointed out that the award's title might indicate that he had been "complete crap" at the start of the campaign.
No one could question the quality of his performance here, however, and while Catt has been overtaken in the representative pecking order by Alex Corbisiero, his opposite number yesterday, and the much-admired Joe Marler of Harlequins, a month's worth of displays like this will see him recover much of the lost ground.
While Catt was setting the tone up front with some fierce driving in open field – one of his more spectacular surges presented outside-half Stephen Donald with his third penalty just past the hour mark – Michael Claassens was enjoying himself mightily at the heels of a rampant pack. Bath were 13-3 up, thanks to Donald's marksmanship and a close-range finish from Catt's fellow prop, Anthony Perenise, when the Exiles midfielder Adrian Jarvis kicked fractionally too widely into the Bath 22 and allowed Nick Abendaon to gather on the run, skin Tom Homer and free Tom Biggs up the left. Claassens picked the perfect supporting line, took a well-timed pass and completed a fine game-breaking try in the corner.
Abendanon might have scored himself a couple of minutes later after Biggs' heavy hit on Matt Garvey produced the kind of turnover ball craved by all fleet-footed full-backs. As it was, the Bath man was run down five metres short by Delon Armitage, who owed his colleagues a favour or two after contributing handsomely to Perenise's 14th-minute try by making a profoundly ugly hash of a clearance kick. Unfortunately for Armitage, he followed up his try-saving tackle by clattering Claassens with an illegal one and spent the remainder of the contest in the cooler.
It is now something of an event if the England back negotiates an entire game without being shown a card of one colour or another.
"It's disappointing," acknowledged Toby Booth, the Exiles head coach, through gritted teeth when asked about Armitage's latest brush with rugby law. "What happened out there had no bearing on the outcome of the game, but it's not helpful in the long term, that's for certain."
Armitage can expect to receive an Apollo-sized rocket when he and his clubmates gather to analyse the tape of this painful defeat. Bath, on the other hand, will keep the match footage on DVD and send out copies as Christmas presents in 11 months' time.
"We've been looking for consistency and we saw some today," the director of rugby, Sir Ian McGeechan, said. "I'm particularly pleased with the way the forwards went, because it's the forwards who allow the half-backs to play. We had eight ball-carriers out there, not two or three, and that makes the game a little easier."
Easy victories over London Irish are as rare as hen's teeth. It is far too soon for Bath to start crowing but, as McGeechan pointed out with a grin, they can at least say they are unbeaten in 2012.
Scorers: Bath: Tries Perenise, Claassens, penalty try Conversions Donald 3 Penalties: Donald 3 London Irish: Penalty Homer.
Bath N Abendanon; O Woodburn (K Eastmond, 65), M Carraro, M Banahan, T Biggs; S Donald, M Claassens; N Catt (C Beech, 63), R Batty, A Perenise (D Wilson, 57), D Attwood, R Caldwell, A Beattie (B Skirving, 61), F Louw (capt), S Taylor.
London Irish: D Armitage; T Homer (A Thompstone, 77), J Ansbro (A Jarvis, 55), S Hape, T Ojo; S Shingler, D Allinson (P Hodgon, 63); A Corbisiero (C Dermody, 54), J Buckland (D Paice, 54), P Ion (M Lahiff, 63), N Kennedy, B Evans, D Danaher (capt), J Gibson (A Gray, 65), R Thorpe (M Garvey, 33).
Referee M Fox (Leicestershire).