Bristol secured the West Country bragging rights over Bath with a thumping 43-16 win before a record Ashton Gate crowd. A sell-out crowd of 26,399 saw this Gallagher Premiership season opener, the largest attendance for a sporting fixture since the stadium’s redevelopment concluded in 2016.
Bristol ran in seven tries to claim a bonus point victory and register their determination to improve on last season’s ninth-place finish. Bath had to defend for long spells and only a combination of some careless Bears handling and Rhys Priestland’s kicking kept them in the contest until the final 15 minutes.
Bristol gave a Premiership debut to former Wasps number eight Nathan Hughes and veteran lock forward Dave Atwood made his first Bears appearance for over 10 years following his summer return from Bath. Hughes stormed towards the try-line in the first minute after Bristol instantly won turnover ball and Luke Morahan finished in the corner following some patient play and neat footwork from Charles Piutau.
Bath replied with a Priestland penalty, but most of the opening exchanges took place in their territory and Hughes’ debut try soon arrived. Hooker Harry Thacker fed Piutau with an inside ball and Hughes was on the New Zealander’s shoulder to score under the posts, with Callum Sheedy adding the extras.
Priestland cut the deficit with a 40-metre penalty but missed another from closer in to reduce the gap further. But Bath went in front when Aled Brew’s kick and chase set up a lineout five yards out after Mat Protheroe had scampered across from the other wing to save a try.
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Bath secured possession at the front and Zach Mercer drove through the maul to stretch for the line. Priestland converted from out wide and Bath led 13-12. The Bears had been sloppy after their bright start, but they pressed again and were rewarded for turning down a kickable penalty seconds from the interval.
Bath held up several drives close to the line but the ball was finally spun to the right for Protheroe to step inside and score. Sheedy missed a simple conversion for Bristol to lead 17-13 at half-time – a fair reflection on the balance of play.
‘I love this time of year because it's a bit like the New Year after Christmas for a lot of people. It’s a fresh slate and a clean start’
– @chris_pennell tells @heagneyl that @WorcsWarriors are feeling very optimistic ahead of the new @premrugby season https://t.co/3It5PBbmME
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 16, 2019
Bristol extended their lead as Dan Thomas’ brilliant pick-up got the Bears’ backline moving again, and Hughes was in the outside channel this time to send Protheroe through. The wing was dragged down just short of the line, but Piers O’Connor was in support to secure a bonus point and Sheedy added the conversion.
Priestland kicked his third penalty, but Bath replacement Lewis Boyce was yellow-carded for a swinging arm after 65 minutes with Bristol camped on the try line. Bristol immediately made their one-man advantage count as prop John Afoa burrowed over from a maul and Sheedy added the touchline conversion.
Replacement Ioan Lloyd, at 18 the youngest player to play for the Bears in the Premiership, and Morahan’s second try wrapped up the win in the final moments.
Full report from thumping derby victory in BS3. ?
— Bristol Bears (@BristolBears) October 18, 2019
“I’ve known Nathan since he was young, back home he was in my academy,” said Bristol director of rugby Pat Lam about his new Fijian-born number eight. “He’s a quality player. But number eights must have high involvement and he’s got to improve his aerobic capacity.
“I want what he can do for 80 minutes. We’ve been building him, and he’s trimmed about four kilos. He’s lost a lot of body fat and we’ve worked him hard with ball in hand. He can be a world-class player, not just bits and pieces. I’ve told Nathan I’m happy but not satisfied, as there’s more that he can do.”
– Press Association
WATCH: Former Australian international Matt Giteau sits down with RugbyPass in the latest episode of Rugby World Cup Memories
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