An Alapati Leuia try was enough to secure an opening-day victory for the returning Bristol Bears as they overcame Bath, winning 17-10.
Bath were left to rue missed opportunities after spurning a 10-9 lead entering the last 10 minutes. But had Tom Dunn not fatally failed to throw the ball into the lineout straight in the dying seconds, Bath would most likely have been celebrating a draw.
For all their stars, Bristol had to fight like Bears to ensure their opponents weren’t scores ahead in the first half. Though Bath were perturbed by handling errors, had it not been for Bristol’s frightening intensity and light speed they’d have been in the ascendency by a long way in the opening stanza.
Bristol were offered an early let-off when Tom Homer, offered a walk-in for the opening try of the season, dropped the ball over the line with no opponent in sight.
As Homer’s error showed, the two teams were struggling from an apparent lack of cohesion in the early stages. Bristol and Bath both offered numerous unforced errors, while the Bears especially were left to rue their inaccuracies as they missed touch from a penalty before later throwing the ball dead after a gifted interception.
Bath’s new recruit Joe Cokanasiga showed a glimpse of his attacking prowess from the backfield in the early stages, but it was his defensive work rate which caught the eye as he denied Luke Morahan from scoring the opening try of the game. Morahan had broken through after Bath’s backline opened up, but Cokanasiga was equal to the Australian’s attempt.
Bristol took a 6-0 lead into the Ashton Gate sheds at half time, and Pat Lam would’ve been delighted with the way his side rode Bath’s frequent waves of intensity. Their lead was further extended when Sam Underhill, playing his first competitive game for Bath since February, was penalised at the ruck.
Bristol were struggling defensively on their return to the Premiership, and Tom Homer was offered a chance for try-scoring redemption early in the second half, which he gleefully took. A Priestland conversion later, and Bristol’s scoreboard advantage had been limited to only two.
The Bears were beginning to lose their grip on the game as a resurgent Bath rampaged up the field and replenished their energy stocks by calling upon their strong set of replacements. But after falling behind for the first time in the match, Bristol’s fighting spirit was seen for the first time in the Gallagher Premiership, as their back-line rampaged after Tom Homer to force a penalty and retake the lead.
When Luke Morahan broke the line again for his 112th metre of the match before setting up Alapati Leuia to score the winning try.
Charles Piutau’s injury was thought to be a harsh blow to Bristol’s survival hopes, but if Luke Morahan can continue to break the line with the ease that he did tonight, then the Wallaby can ensure that Piutau’s absence is not felt too greatly.
Speaking in the week before the match, Pat Lam said that Bristol’s ambitions for the season were to finish in the top six. On this evidence, there is no reason why the Bears can’t compete for European honours. With a squad shorn of 11 first team players through injury – including the two Piutau brothers and Aly Muldowney – Bristol were able to silence Bath’s international quality, and draw upon stacks of spirit.
Bath opted for youth over experience in the back row, as Francois Louw was left out in favour of the young flanker Sam Underhill, while Zach Mercer started in the 6 shirt. But the young duo were outclassed by Bristol’s international experience – Steven Luatua was supreme in forcing numerous Bath errors, while George Smith was quietly solid in attack and defence.
On paper, Bath’s squad looks to be comparable to any in the Gallagher Premiership. They have the best back-row in the top flight and international quality all across the backline, but if they continue to squander possession and make poor decisions as they did today, Bruce Craig’s heavy investment will be wasted.
With a trip to Allianz Park to take on the champions looming, Bristol must learn from London Irish’s mistakes and build on their opening day successes. For Bristol to prosper in the top flight as they threatened to tonight, their shrewdly acquired squad players must step up to the mark as their players inevitably struggle to adapt to the greater physicality of the top flight.
The fact that Bristol were able to draw upon such spirit in holding on when their opponents were so dominant will give Pat Lam great heart as he looks to spur Bristol into the upper echelons of the Gallagher Premiership. On this evidence, his job will be easier than many have predicted.