Robinson's dazzling dash takes Bristol into derby heaven

Bristol 19 Bath 16
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The Independent Online

Bristol's summer signing from Plymouth Albion ignored the cauliflower-faced brigade outside him and side-stepped his way past no fewer than five would-be Bath tacklers to earn the Premiership newcomers a derby victory they will celebrate in these parts for ever and a day.

Richard Hill, the Bristol coach, heaped several metric tonnes of praise on Robinson - a born-and-bred Bathonian, for heaven's sake - for backing himself in a situation so pressurised it should have been played out in a diving bell.

"We brought him here because he has the ability to score tries that are beyond the capabilities of other people," said the former England scrum-half, who, during his playing days, was one of the men at the very heart of Bath's supremacy over the club he now serves. "Mind you, I can't pretend I wasn't just a little concerned when he went on his own. An overlap is an overlap, no matter who's in it."

Along with the highly regarded No 8 Dan Ward-Smith, the unusually substantial Robinson had caused Bristol all manner of grief during their sojourn in National League One.

"They were Plymouth's best players, and we kept an eye on them," Hill said. "When we were promoted, we contracted them. Before this game, I wasn't at all sure that Lee was the man for the shirt; we have a lot of competition for the wing positions and it hurt me to leave out some of the people who performed so well in taking us back into the Premiership. As things turned out, it was a good selection."

Bristol, whose backs had played as positively as Hill had promised on their return to the big boys' league and whose forwards had gone toe-to-toe with a Bath pack expected to leave them in a collective grave somewhere on the Mendips, were four points adrift at 16-12 when Robinson announced himself to the wider rugby world. The home side had been stretching their neighbours this way and that when the wing received the ball in centre-field and, having satisfied himself that he would be better going it alone, he slipped between Andy Beattie and Pieter Dixon, beat the first covering tackle, wrong-footed Matt Perry (no mean feat) with a dart off his right peg and then did something similar to Martyn Wood before touching down at the posts.

Some try, some victory. Bath had established an advantage in the second quarter when Chris Malone dropped a goal from 50 metres-plus and Frikkie Welsh had indulged in a meandering solo extravaganza of his own, running four-fifths of the field, seemingly via Temple Meads railway station and the Clifton Suspension Bridge, following the breakdown of a Bristol attack that should have borne fruit. Yet they never put more than 10 points between themselves and their hosts, and with Olly Barkley missing goal-kicks by the gross they paid the price.

Needless to say, their tacticians were apoplectic at the frittering away of four Premiership points - points that, in a tournament as bitterly competitive as this, could cost them a packet come next May.

John Connolly, the head coach, said: "First game of the season, a derby against a side just up in the Premiership, a packed house, all the emotion about the place - we knew we had to put Bristol away early, because if they were still in the game in the last 10 minutes things were bound to be tough. We had a million chances to kill it off, and didn't. It wasn't great."

Yet such was the incestuous nature of the contest - besides the inter-club connections already mentioned, no fewer than four Bristol forwards, including the entire front row, had played for Bath, while three of the Bath side had spent time at the Memorial Ground - a close finish was always on the cards. Once the allegedly lightweight Bristol pack found the wherewithal to get heavy with their opposite numbers, it was a case of all to play for.

On first showing, Hill has armed himself with some distinctly useful acquisitions. Geraint Lewis, the Welshman who has never been less than a joy to watch with his many subtleties and sophistications, looked full of ideas at No 8, while Mariano Sambucetti, a veritable tank of a lock from Argentina via the Correze region of France, added significant amounts of ballast to the forward effort. And Mark Regan, the returning prodigal? Suffice to say his remarkable record of never losing to one of his previous clubs remains intact.

There are issues to be confronted, of course. Bristol were heavily penalised at the ruck - Craig Short, their open-side flanker, spent much of this fixture getting on the nerves of the officials - and there is no guarantee that the thirtysomething bump-and-grinders like Regan, David Hilton, Darren Crompton and Gareth Llewellyn will draw breath long enough to complete a 22-match Premiership programme.

Yet four significant overseas signings have still to arrive at the Memorial Ground - the likes of Brian Lima and Jacob Rauluni should be available for another home derby, this time with Gloucester, in 13 days' time - and if they are incorporated swiftly and successfully, Bristol could conceivably have five wins to their name before the halfway mark. That would make them decent bets for survival and provoke another outbreak of relegation neurosis among their so-called elders and betters.

"This is a huge bonus, and an unexpected one," Hill admitted. "I'd been preparing myself for the worst-case scenario of spending next week picking up a disappointed group of people. Now, I'll have to do the opposite." He'll manage, one way or another.

Bristol: Try Robinson; Conversion Strange; Penalties Strange 4; Bath: Try Welsh; Conversion Barkley; Penalties Barkley 2; Drop goal Malone.

Bristol: B Stortoni; L Robinson, R Higgit, M Contepomi (M Denney, 40), V Going; J Strange, S Perry; D Hilton (A Clarke, 61), M Regan (S Nelson, 80), D Crompton, M Sambucetti, G Llewellyn, M Salter (capt; R Winters, 63), C Short, G Lewis (D Ward-Smith, 67).

Bath: M Perry; J Maddock (L Best, 8), A Higgins, O Barkley, F Welsh; C Malone, M Wood; D Barnes, L Mears (P Dixon, 58), D Bell (M Stevens 31-68), S Borthwick (capt), D Grewcock (R Fidler, 67), A Beattie, J Scaysbrook, I Fea'unati (G Delve, 75).

Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).