Bath were indebted to a nerveless kicking display from the tenderfoot winger Jack Cuthbert which secured this breathless victory. While the experienced trio of Bath's Butch James and London Irish's Eoghan Hickey and Peter Hewat missed nine kicks between them in a game of disappointingly low quality, Cuthbert banged over three penalties, the third in the final minute, to inflict only a second home defeat on the Exiles since last October.
Cuthbert, a former Scotland Under-19, has benefited from working on his kicking with the former All Black fly-half Grant Fox during a summer at the International Rugby Academy in New Zealand, and from sessions with the former Wales fly-half Neil Jenkins, who works part-time with Bath.
The 21-year-old was handed the kicking duties yesterday after James had endured anotherwretched afternoon, and he went on to make the decisive contribution to Bath's second win of the season by landing three of his four kicks. James, who missed all five of his goal-kicks in last week's first-ever home defeat by Gloucester, managed two out of five yesterday and raised his right fist in mock triumph when he eventually located the target with the simplest of penalties from in front of the posts.
The Springbok fly-half appeared to have rediscovered his touch when he then slotted a difficult penalty from close to the right-hand touchline, but he was immediately relieved of his duties when a subsequent penalty attempt floated off the tee and fell well short of the target.
Hickey and Hewat were little better, missing a total of six kicks between them, though Hewat's attempted conversion of Elvis Seveali'i's last-minute chip-and-chase try only missed the target by the width of gnat's wing.
Certain spectators may have found some black humour in the hapless kicking contest, but there was little decent rugby played in a match punctuated with handling errors and penalties.
"If we had not improved in the second half I would have been very disappointed, because it could not have got any worse," said the Exiles' head coach, Toby Booth, who refused to blame a lengthy injury list which has weakened his small squad for such a below-par performance. He was, however, quick to praise Alex Corbisiero, the American-born England Under-20 loosehead prop, who coped admirably with Bath's experienced front row.
Corbisiero, a product of the Exiles' academy system, also scored his maiden Premiership try, driving over from close range to round off a rare fluent attack. Apart from a strong diagonal run from Topsy Ojo, however, there was little else for Brian Smith, the new England attack coach and former Exiles director of rugby, to note on his return to Reading.
Though Steve Meehan, Bath's Australian head coach, was at a loss to explain James's loss of confidence as a goal- kicker after his flawless start to the season at Bristol, the South African fly-half did feature prominently in Bath's win.
James was on hand to take a scoring pass from his countryman, the scrum-half Michael Claassens, after Joe Maddock had punched a hole in theExiles' defence. Furthermore, his calm tactical kicking helped to relieve some of the second-half pressure.
London Irish: P Hewat; T Ojo, D Armitage, S Mapusua (capt), S Tagicakibau; E Hickey (E Seveali'i, 55), P Richards (P Hodgson, 59); A Corbisiero (J Fisher, 69), D Paice (D Coetzee, 59), F Rautenbach (T Lea'aetoa, 61), N Kennedy, G Johnson, R Thorpe, C Hala'Ufia, S Armitage.
Bath: N Abendanon; J Maddock, A Crockett (T Cheeseman, 64), E Fuimaono-Sapolu (S Berne, 55), J Cuthbert; B James, M Claassens (S Bemand, 63); D Barnes (D Flatman, 63), L Mears (P Dixon, 50), D Bell (L Mears, 50), J Harrison, P Short, S Hooper, J Scaysbrook, M Lipman (capt).
Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland; A Rowden, Berkshire, 38).