It must be something in the water. That and the brilliant display of Olly Barkley consigned Gloucester to another lost weekend on the banks of the Avon. In a stunning reversal of form, Bath played their great West Country rivals off the Recreation Ground.
Barkley was back to his best and so were Bath, which makes the management's decision to mess him around in the opening games of the season all the more mysterious, not to say plain crazy.
Mike Tindall was named man of the match on account of scoring both Bath's tries, but Barkley should have won it by a mile. The young stand-off, belatedly preferred to the Australian Chris Malone, ran the show either with the ball in hand or through the boot.
Barkley outplayed another Australian, his opposite number Duncan McRae (in marks out of 10 it was Barkley 9, McRae 5) and in terms of goal-kicking made Henry Paul look like a beginner. While Barkley contributed 19 points and a lot more, Paul was successful with only two kicks out of six.
For the first time Bath played with the passion and skill that marked their tremendous campaign last season. If it took the West Country derby to bring the best out of Bath, the reverse was true of Gloucester. Unbeaten when they arrived here, they had a chance of overtaking Sale at the top of the Zurich Premiership, but that was forgetting the X-factor. The Cherry and Whites have never won a league match here, an extraordinary run dating back to 1987.
For such a match you would have thought that one of the first names on the Gloucester teamsheet would be that of Olivier Azam, the gruesome French hooker. He started on the bench, and he and the new South African signing, the prop Christo Bezuidenhout, came on early in the second half. Azam had only been playing for six minutes when he illegally and blatantly and utterly stupidly took out Danny Grewcock at a line-out.
The upshot, of course, was a yellow card for Azam and a penalty for Bath, which Barkley kicked to make it 22-9. Gloucester was still down to 14 men when McRae sent a kick directly into touch, and from the line-out the scrum-half Martyn Wood, like his colleagues restored to full belligerence, fed Tindall with a lovely little inside pass. The England centre, running a marvellous angle, powered diagonally towards the left-hand corner, wrong-footing Marcel Garvey in the process. With Barkley converting the try from the touchline, Bath were 20 points in front, 10 of them being scored while Azam was in the cooler.
Gloucester, on the other hand, could make no inroads when Robbie Fleck was sent to the sin-bin for a cheap late shot on James Simpson-Daniel just before half- time. Paul failed with the resultant penalty and again with another on the stroke of half-time.
At that point Bath led 16-6, thanks to three Barkley penalties and a try of almost comic proportions. With Paul kicking two penalties, it was 6-6 when Barkley put in an up-and-under in the 28th minute. Jon Goodridge, the Gloucester full-back, failed to gather, and as the ball bounced free McRae somehow managed to fumble it towards his own line where, in the utter confusion, Tindall had the simple task of picking up to score at the posts. Gloucester were almost equally as hapless when Barkley struck an upright with a penalty attempt, from which Adam Eustace knocked on, and the result was that Barkley was immediately presented with another kick at goal, this one much easier.
Gloucester were probably thinking that this was another fine mess that Olly had got them into, but nevertheless they were not out of it, especially when McRae dropped a goal to cut the deficit to seven points four minutes into the second half. Then Azam made it advantage Bath.
The game was lost by the time Gloucester found a familiar rhythm, winning possession and forcing Bath to concede penalties, but with time running out the visitors were in no position to kick for goal. Gloucester's reward for a late show was a try by Goodridge, who fastened on to an almost perfect chip to the corner by McRae. Paul, to nobody's surprise, missed the conversion.
Mercifully, Lee Best, making his first home appearance for almost a year, came through without the assistance of the paramedics. Best is back after having a knee rebuilt, but last week complained of what he thought was a groin strain. It was nothing of the kind. The poor boy has a hernia, and sooner or later will have another operation. The No 15 jersey appears to be cursed, which makes the sale of Iain Balshaw to Leeds all the more questionable. The desperately unfortunate Matt Perry is out with another serious injury, but apart from that Bath are looking remarkably like their old selves.
Bath: L Best; A Higgins, R Fleck, M Tindall, B Daniel (S Dave, 70); O Barkley, M Wood (N Walshe, 72); D Barnes (M Stevens 35, J Humphreys (capt; R Hawkins, 67), D Bell (D Barnes, 70), S Borthwick, D Grewcock (R Fidler, 70), A Beattie (G Delve, 79), I Feaunati, M Lipman.
Gloucester: J Goodridge; M Garvey, T Fanolua, H Paul, J Simpson-Daniel; D McRae, A Gomarsall; T Sigley (C Bezuidenhout, 44), C Fortey (O Azam, 44), G Powell, A Eustace (J Forrester, 62), A Brown, P Buxton, A Balding, J Boer (capt).
Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).
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