After suffering a defeat against Edinburgh in the final of the pre-season friendlies, Bath Rugby were keen to stamp their mark on the opening match of the season against local rival Bristol, and stamp on it they did.
Enjoying three converted tries and four penalties, Bath got their Guinness Premiership campaign off to a perfect start with a 20 - 33 victory at the Memorial Stadium today.
If Bath were hoping for an early try, Bristol managed to fulfil that ambition first as Andrew Blower crossed the line within two minutes in the top right hand corner. Adrian Jarvis's successful conversion gave Bristol a strong early advantage with a seven point lead. Bath attempted to make up some of the lost points and ground in the form of Peter Short who blasted through the Bristol defence and carried the ball over the halfway line.
A stolen lineout later, Bath's energy levels were renewed and as the ball dribbled into touch in the corner, Bath were within inches of clawing back some points. Butch James, raring to go following his return from Tri-Nations duty, made a fast pass to Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu who slipped the ball to Joe Maddock on the wing. Stuart Hooper was ready and waiting at the top corner and he narrowly missed the try line as he was felled by a high tackle. The ensuing penalty afforded James the opportunity to reward Bath with their first three points as he kicked a penalty between the sticks.
Determined to keep the ball inside their hosts' 22, Matt Stevens careered back towards the try line, but was once again halted in the corner. This failed to matter though, as two minutes later, as Maddock cut a perfect angle through the Bristol defence from the halfway line to register Bath's first try of the match. After 17 minutes, Bath were ahead where they should be with a 7 - 10 lead. The lead was to be short-lived though as James Scaysbrook was penalised for not releasing and Bristol equalised with a second penalty kick from Jarvis. As the clock reached the final eight minutes of the first half, Bath finally broke the stalemate, as a pass to Matt Banahan from James allowed the winger to sprint towards the white line, where Tom Cheeseman was positioned well to take the ball over the white line. As James successfully converted the try, Bath went back into the lead with 10 - 17 advantage. Again the pendulum swung in favour of Bristol as sevens specialist David Lemi created a moment of individual brilliance to gather a kick, skip past a number of Bath defenders, and touch down despite a last-ditch attempt by Justin Harrison. The score roused the home crowd and the scores were locked at 17-17 at the interval.
Keen to press on and take advantage of a dominant scrum, Bath opened the second half in determined fashion. James sparked an early move which was carried on by Banahan, Cheeseman, Claassens and Matt Stevens and resulted in the South African being offered the chance to kick for goal once again. Faced with a difficult angle, the Springbok made no mistake and Bath nosed ahead once again 17-20. James was involved again as he kicked Bath deep inside Bristol's 22. Captain Claassens took advantage of the ground, making a rapid break towards the try line off-loading to Stevens to finish. Unfortunately the prop was tackled well and Stevens failed to secure the five points. However, Bristol felt under enough pressure to offend again, giving James the chance to boot the ball between the uprights for Bath's third penalty of the match, taking the score to 17 - 23 at 50 minutes.
The next three minutes saw three points won by both teams, but Bath kept the lead as Butch James, allaying any fears for the kicking calibre of Bath's team this season, slotted 100% of kicks taken. Not satisfied with the six point lead, Jonny Faamatuainu injected some star quality as he made a defence-fooling break to open the Bristol defence and score near the posts. The conversion by James gave Bath a comfortable 20 - 33 lead. Bristol were given an opportunity to reduce the score divide when David Flatman, having entered the fray at 57 minutes, tackled a player without the ball. This gave Jarvis the chance to take a penalty kick at goal, but as the ball dropped just wide of the posts the score remained in Bath's favour after 68 minutes.
Bristol made a valiant attempt to rescue the game, as the clock counted down the remaining five minutes and a charge by Greg Barden took the home side close to bonus point range. However, strong defence by Nick Abendanon put pains to that particular move. Bristol refused to buckle, but despite their efforts the action remained deep inside their 22 and Bath held out for an impressive opening victory.
Final score 20-33 to Bath Rugby.