Wing Lee Robinson, a summer signing from National One Plymouth Albion, scored the winning try on 79 minutes, beating five Bath defenders during a weaving run to the line.
Immaculate fly-half Jason Strange slotted the conversion – he finished with 14 points from five successful kicks – and Bath had nothing left. Bath led for most of the match, courtesy of wing Frikkie Welsh’s stunning solo try and the combined kicking efforts of Olly Barkley and Chris Malone, but they were found wanting when Bristol stepped up a gear late on.
Bristol are 200/1 Premiership title shots, and while silverware will prove way beyond them, relegation back to National League One might not be the formality many people expect.
A record Memorial Stadium crowd of just under 12,000 welcomed Bristol back to English rugby’s big-time, and the appearance of four ex-Bath forwards in their pack provided added spice. Bristol head coach Richard Hill paraded six league debutants, including 36-year-old Welsh international Gareth Llewellyn, but Bath suffered a late blow when scrum-half Nick Walshe withdrew because of back spasms, meaning a late call for Martyn Wood.
Given the hype – and intense pressure – surrounding their Premiership opener, Bristol settled superbly, dominating the opening 10 minutes after Strange kicked them ahead through an angled penalty.
Bath lost wing Joe Maddock because of a hamstring injury – former Bristol back Lee Best replaced him – and the visitors’ first scoring chance almost produced a try when wing Welsh chased a speculative kick and was only denied by some last-ditch defence from covering scrum-half Shaun Perry.
Barkley’s opening penalty levelled the scores on 16 minutes, and although he missed a second chance shortly afterwards, Malone edged Bath in front when he rifled over a 50-metre drop goal. Bath had taken the sting out of Bristol’s early adventure, and they stretched out to a 10-point lead following a scintillating Welsh try.
South African wing Welsh gathered possession inside his own 22, but despite having unmarked team-mates outside him, Welsh weaved his way through Bristol’s defence, changing direction twice and beating three players to touch down.
Barkley’s conversion made it 13-3, and Bristol suffered another setback just before the break when centre Manu Contepomi limped off. Skipper Matt Salter was also in the wars, taking a blow to his ribs, but Bristol kept themselves in contention courtesy of a second Strange penalty, as they trailed 13-6 at half-time.
Strange and Barkley exchanged penalties early in the second period, yet Bristol, having been warned by referee Dave Pearson for repeated infringements, transgressed again and substitute centre Mark Denney was sin-binned following a technical offence.
Denney’s 10-minute absence increased the degree of difficulty for Bristol, yet neither side could string together more than two or three passes without spilling possession.
The overall standard left a lot to be desired, and with Pearson often blowing, entertainment value barely registered on the scale. Bristol lost a groggy Salter early in the final quarter, and the appearance of former Harlequins forward Roy Winters provided fresh impetus for a Bristol pack that showed little sign of wilting in the stamina-sapping heat.
Bath’s attacking deficiencies, especially, meant they could not put the game out of Bristol’s reach, and ensured the home side were still in contention entering the closing stages.
Strange’s fourth successful penalty after 72 minutes turned up the heat on Bath, and set the stage for a Robinson-inspired finale.