Bath confirmed they are to be taken seriously as early GUINNESS PREMIERSHIP title contenders with a conclusive three-try victory over neighbours Bristol.
South Africa’s World Cup-winning fly-half Butch James enjoyed an impressive league debut as tries went to Andrew Higgins, Michael Lipman and Matthew Banahan with Olly Barkley kicking 13 points.
Bath came straight out of the blocks to rattle up a point a minute as the visitors looked on in some bewilderment for the first 20 minutes.
First, a multi-phased attack forced an offside decision and a penalty kick by Barkley from 30 metres.
Next James’s inch-perfect kick to the right touchline saw the ball bounce into Luke Arscott’s arms just as Higgins made the tackle. The ex-Bristol wing robbed the fullback and cantered over for a ninth-minute try converted by Barkley.
Then on 19 minutes James was creator again, feeding Banahan with a neat inside pass.
The giant wing stepped out of a tackle on the gain line and made 25 metres before being brought down, but his path out of the tackle found flanker Lipman in support for the try.
Barkley’s conversion gave Bath a 17-0 advantage – and Bristol had not mounted a meaningful attack.
However, their forwards became more competitive at the set-piece and in the loose.
A speculative kick to the Bath 22 by fly half Jason Strange was fumbled by Higgins and, as Bristol kept up the pressure, referee Wayne Barnes eventually awarded a penalty which Strange landed from short-range on 26 minutes.
The former Wales fly half was on target again from a tight angle six minutes later and Bristol were finally looking more like the side that had toppled Stade Francais six days earlier in the Heineken Cup.
Just as importantly they mounted a strong defence to deny Bath a try from a line-out after James again teased Arscott with a clever cross-kick.
Bath stepped up the pace after the break and should have scored from a 70-metre counterattack initiated by impressive England prop Matt Stevens.
Bristol infringed, however, and Barkley kicked his second penalty to put Bath 20-6 ahead on 50 minutes.
Bristol responded on the hour with a fine try by left-wing David Lemi, riding Nick Abendanon’s tackle after Shaun Perry and Rob Higgitt had made space on the short side.
Strange converted to cut the margin to seven points but Barkley responded almost immediately with his third penalty.
Bristol desperately searched for another score keeping the ball for minutes on end but eventually spilled a pass and Bath struck, the ball passing through eight pairs of hands before Banahan crashed through Arscott’s tackle to score 70 metres upfield.
Barkley’s conversion was wide but Bath were happy with their sixth win in seven Premiership matches.