The derby-night news was good for Bath, grim for Gloucester and more than a little worrying for the England coach Stuart Lancaster ahead of next weekend’s Six Nations meeting with Italy.
Freddie Burns, fast-tracked back into Premiership rugby after a six-week struggle with knee problems, lasted only 50 minutes – a development that threatens his participation against the Azzurri and leaves the national team with selection issues at outside-half.
With Owen Farrell’s thigh injury giving Lancaster cause for concern, Burns only had to emerge unscathed to guarantee himself a seat on the Twickenham bench. Now, the best-laid plans are up in the air. Much will depend on the medical bulletins over the next 48 hours.
Gloucester’s cause was further undermined by the sending-off of their hooker, Darren Dawidiuk, for tip-tackling the heavyweight lock Dave Attwood nine minutes after the break – a feat of strength as much as an illicit act. Yet the visitors finished the stronger and after Jonny May claimed his second try of the night with 15 minutes left, the result could have gone either way.
It was an exhilarating contest from the get-go. Bath, their attacking game transformed by the arrival of the veteran Irish scrum-half Peter Stringer and the pairing of Tom Heathcote and Kyle Eastmond as an inside-back axis, were full of bristling intent from the outset and they were rewarded inside five minutes when Matt Banahan made a clean break in midfield and kicked ahead for the willing chaser Tom Biggs, who was illegally brought to earth by Charlie Sharples in the act of scoring. The verdict? A penalty try for Bath and a yellow card for Sharples.
Eastmond, something of a handful in the No 12 channel, would add a second try some 30 minutes later – and this was a thing of beauty. Heathcote slipped away from Burns on one of his occasional midfield forays and when he found his partner with a sweetly-timed pass, the rugby league refugee dipped his shoulder, readjusted his balance and buried the hapless Sharples en route to the sticks.
But in between those scores, Burns had himself a ball: not with his marksmanship – Rob Cook, the full-back with a goal-kicking action that makes him look like a cross between a Cossack dancer and a dysentery victim, assumed the duties before the interval – but with a series of brilliant broken-field runs and eye-of-the-needle passes. He created a lovely try down the left for May in the left corner and would have bagged one himself had not May’s inside pass to Mike Tindall been ruled forward.
Unfortunately, the fun did not last. Burns pulled up abruptly early in the second half after trying to thread a running clearance through a bunch of onrushing opponents and was quickly withdrawn. Much of the electricity threatened to disappear with him, although Bath’s third try, cleverly finished by Biggs early in the last quarter, was well worth watching. Then came Gloucester’s courageous resurgence, which gave the game the finale it deserved.
Scorers: Bath – Tries Penalty try, Eastmond, Biggs; Conversions Heathcote 2; Penalties Heathcote 4. Gloucester – Tries May 2, Trinder; Conversion Burns, Cook; Penalties Cook 2.
Bath: N Abendanon; H Agulla, M Banahan, K Eastmond, T Biggs; T Heathcote, P Stringer; P James (N Catt 75), R Webber (R Batty 68), D Wilson, D Day (W Spencer 68), D Attwood, F Louw (capt), C Fearns, B Skirving.
Gloucester: R Cook; C Sharples, H Trinder, M Tindall (capt), J May; F Burns (R Mills 50), D Robson; N Wood (D Murphy 55), D Dawidiuk, R Harden (D Chistolini 20), L Lokotui, W James, T Savage (P Buxton 74), A Qera (H Edmonds 52), S Kalamafoni.
Referee: T Wigglesworth (Yorkshire)