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Bath's impressive european form continues

Another Friday night, with the weather all too reminiscent of the sodden match the previous week against Cardiff, saw Bath make it three European Challenge Cup wins from three matches with an impressive 26-18 defeat of French side Albi in France on Friday night.

Any thoughts of a repeat of the performance against Cardiff a week previously were quickly dispelled as Bath took just five minutes to register the first points on the scoreboard through Butch James's cultured right boot. Shaun Berne had crashed through the heart of the Albi defence to open up a huge hole for Tom Cheeseman, and although the Welshman was brought down just short of the line, the home side infringed at the resulting ruck and James successfully kicked the first points of the match.

Bath though, were stunned just two minutes later as a speculative kick bounced cruelly for the Bath defence and Justin Mensah-Coker tapped the ball into the arms of fly half Mattieu Maillard, who galloped 30 metres unopposed to the try line to give the home side an unexpected two point lead against the run of play.

With the weather damp at best, and atrocious in patches, the ball had become extremely greasy, but Bath displayed excellent handling skills to play the wintry conditions well, and keep the pressure on their French opponents with an intelligent mix of punishing kicks and penetrating attacks. Excellent interplay between Lee Mears, Butch James and Joe Maddock inside the first quarter allowed Bath to advance towards the Albi line once more.

With 17 minutes on the clock, a raking kick from James saw Bath advance deep inside the Albi half , but again Bath were denied and this time Albi responded with a further three points of their own after the Bath defence was caught offside after a testing kick to take the score to 8-3.

The game continued to ebb and flow until tighthead prop, Jerome Filitoga, was sin binned for a spear tackle on Berne after the Australian had offloaded the ball in the tackle. It was to be a turning point as James slotted over the resulting penalty kick to reduce the arrears to just two points.

With the 22 stone prop in the bin, Albi, who had been struggling for clean set piece ball, were unable to find any parity upfront and found themselves subjected to wave upon wave of Bath attacks. Something had to give and Bath finally made the breakthrough with eight minutes of the first half remaining.

In one of the best moves of the match, Peter Short thundered into the Albi half, having been the beneficiary of Daniel Browne's strong carry from the base of the scrum. Although the second row was eventually hauled down by a despairing tackle with the line beckoning, Shaun Berne was on hand to supply the scoring pass to Andy Beattie, who crashed over in the corner for a score that thrilled the vocal travelling support. James converted and Bath were ahead once more with 8-13.

Albi added a penalty of their own four minutes later, but Bath remained in control. Playing the blustery conditions well, James's boot kept the French side pegged firmly back deep inside their own half, and from such an excellent platform, the South African chipped the ball through the advancing Albi defence for Michael Stephenson to chase. Although the ball and the dead-ball line combined to deny the winger what would have been a superb score, Bath ended the first half with an 11-13 advantage.

Buoyed by a strong opening show, Bath started the second half immediately threatening the Albi line after a run by Andy Beattie. In their desperation to repel the advancing attacks, Albi infringed in the shadow of their own posts, and James, who kicked superbly all evening, converted the penalty to take Bath's advantage to five points.

Bath, retaining the ball superbly despite the inclement conditions, kept their composure during a ten-minute assault on the Albi line and although Borthwick, Barnes and Short were denied at close quarters, Nick Walshe slipped a scoring pass to James, who soared over the line in the 55th minute for a 23-11 lead. The score capped an impressive evening for the South African World Cup winner, whose first try for his club also came on French soil.

Pressing for further tries, Bath were in complete control in the final quarter, and although tempers flared within the Albi camp as the Frenchmen lost their composure, the visitor's conviction was not thwarted. From a scuffle, Bath established excellent filed position through James's boot. Tom Cheeseman took the visitors close once more, and although a scrum was awarded, the home side buckled under severe pressure and James stepped up to line-up another penalty kick, which clipped the post on its way over, taking Bath to an unassailable 15-point lead.

Bath used their bench to great effect and Olly Barkley, who had entered the fray at 70 minutes, nearly sent Berne in for a third try. With time running out, the match lost and feeding off scraps of possession, Albi launched one last attack inside the Bath half and were rewarded with a converted try through Frederic Manca, which, in bringing the score to 26-18, masked what was a comfortable victory for Bath.

Bath:

15. Nick Abendanon, 14. Joe Maddock, 13. Tom Cheeseman, 12. Shaun Berne, 11. Michael Stephenson, 10. Butch James, 9. Nick Walshe, 1. David Barnes, 2. Lee Mears, 3. Matt Stevens, 4. Steve Borthwick (c), 5. Peter Short, 6. Andy Beattie, 7. Michael Lipman, 8. Daniel Browne

Replacements:

16. Pieter Dixon, 17. Paulica Ion, 18. Martin Purdy, 19. Jonny Faamatuainu, 20. Chris Goodman, 21. Michael Claassens, 22. Olly Barkley

Albi:

15. John-Lui Stewart, 14. Justin Mensah-Coker, 13. Thibault Lacroix, 12. Thomas Sanchou, 11. Patrice Serre, 10. Mathieu Maillard, 9. Sebastien Pages, 1. Christophe Lafoy, 2. Nicolas Grelon, 3. Jerome Filitoga, 4. Philippe Guicherd (c), 5. Arnaud Mela, 6. Yoann Misse, 7. Franck Marechal

Replacements:

16. Pierre Daby, 17. Mathieu Larrouy, 18. Guillaume Ribes, 19. Paul Guffroy, 20. Timothy Bowker, 21. Dimitri Senio, 22. Frederic Manca

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