Olly Barkley booted Bath to a 19-9 victory over Bristol at Ashton Gate – and underlined what the GUINNESS PREMIERSHIP title challengers will miss next season.
Fly-half Barkley’s left boot made the difference in a typically tense and tight west country derby.
His four successful penalties and conversion of substitute wing Andrew Higgins’ late try kept Bath third in the table, just one point beind second-placed Leicester with a game in hand.
Current Premiership leaders Gloucester will benefit from England international Barkley’s services next season following confirmation last week of his six-figure move to Kingsholm.
Barkley’s fourth successful penalty midway through the second period put Bristol on the back foot, before Higgins sealed the deal.
It was Bristol’s first home league defeat since Leicester toppled them at the Memorial Stadium almost six months ago, with three Ed Barnes penalties proving their only scoring reward.
Bristol gave as good as they got in the forward exchanges, but Bath’s superior pace behind the scrum finally told, courtesy of Higgins sprinting over when Bristol’s defensive resilience finally subsided.
Bath’s former England lock Danny Grewcock missed the game after his partner gave birth last night, but current internationals Lee Mears, Matt Stevens, Steve Borthwick and Michael Lipman all returned from Test duty.
Lipman made a 100th Bath appearance, lining up against his former club as the visitors targeted their first victory in Bristol since 1998.
Bristol boss Richard Hill put England hooker Mark Regan on the bench – in-form New Zealander Scott Linklater was preferred – while there were call-ups for lock Gareth Llewellyn and number eight Andrew Blowers.
Bath dominated early territory, moving ahead through an eighth-minute Barkley penalty, and although Barnes quickly landed an equalising strike, Bristol remained under pressure.
Barkley and Barnes exchanged further penalties, yet Bath – despite losing injured prop David Barnes – ensured play remained deep inside Bristol’s half.
Matt Banahan should have scored wide out after flanker Andy Beattie’s pass freed him in space, but an initial fumble was followed by a knock-on and Bristol escaped.
Bath were then denied after a slick handling move was ruined when referee David Rose ruled full-back Joe Maddock’s pass to wing Michael Stephenson had drifted forward.
It appeared a marginal call by the official, and Bristol prospered, moving ahead for the first time as Barnes completed his penalty hat-trick with the final kick of a disappointing half.
Bath, who lost a bloodied Lipman just before the break, should have been comfortably clear, yet Bristol’s trademark doggedness and commitment up-front shaded the contest.
Lipman returned for the second period, and a Barkley penalty following sustained pressure made it 9-9 on 48 minutes.
Bath though, were reduced to 14 men in the 53rd-minute when centre Alex Crockett was sin-binned for illegally holding back Bristol wing David Lemi.
But referee Rose appeared to caution the wrong man, with Barkley looking to have halted Lemi, not Crockett.
Bristol sacrificed the kickable penalty that resulted, preferring to maintain set-piece pressure through their forwards, and only desperate last-ditching tackle by Shaun Berne and Michael Classens kept out Lemi in the corner.
It was an admirable effort by Bristol, but they then fell victim to another contentious Rose ruling.
Flanker Joel El Abd powered over unopposed from the back of a five-metre lineout, only to see Rose wipe out the try because of offside.
Bristol deserved better, yet Richard Hill’s men were still in the contest entering a final quarter that started when Barkley rifled over a 40-metre penalty.
A punishing contest saw Bath lose flanker Andy Beattie – he returned to the dug-out on crutches with his knee heavily strapped – and Barnes’ replacement Duncan Bell.
Bell’s exit 10 minutes from time meant Barnes returning to the fray, and Bath confirmed the points through Higgins’ try that Barkley converted.