Bath 20 Bristol Bears 19
In a sensational match full of sensational individual performances, Bath centre Ollie Lawrence somehow stood head and shoulders above the rest, scoring one try and creating another in the space of 60 seconds to help secure the spoils of a rip-roaring South-West derby.
A trail of Bristol defenders kept appearing in Lawrence’s wake, like a 747’s contrails through a clear sky. He knived his way through the Bristol defensive line for the opening score and then straight from the restart initiated the break that finished with captain Ben Spencer going over in the corner. Lawrence’s head-to-head with former France centre Virimi Vakatawa more than delivered on its box-office potential while Harry Randall was outstanding in a losing cause for Bristol.
“I thought Ollie was excellent,” Johann van Graan, Bath’s head of rugby, said. “Both teams found momentum and we put Ollie through a few holes. I thought the kick-off try was a brilliant team effort and Ollie’s decision-making on when to make the pass. I thought it was a real positive for the Premiership if you look at the quality on display from both sides and the two No 13s, who were both world class and who had a go at each other.
Lawrence’s fireworks gave Bath a 17-7 advantage but in the end they only just held on to victory thanks to Finn Russell’s 67th-minute penalty as the introduction of Kyle Sinckler gave Bristol the ascendancy in the scrum in the second half. Callum Sheedy, who was largely excellent for, missed two tricky penalties as Bristol fell to their fourth successive defeat and they were left to rue a host of missed opportunities.
“It could have gone either way at the end,” Pat Lam, the Bristol Bears director of rugby, said. “We lost by one point and you have to ask did the gameplan give you opportunities? Was there two points left out there? 100 per cent. I know there could be doom and gloom on the outside because of the results but they could easily be the other way round and what I am loving is the boys are fighting and showing lots of effort.”
For the first five minutes, Bristol had Bath chasing shadows with Randall’s snipe allowing No 8 Marcus Bradbury to go over under the posts.
Then Lawrence took over. On the right hand touchline, he cut his way past Gabriel Ibitoye and Vakatawa and was only hauled down five metres from the tryline with Russell getting Bath on the scoreboard with a penalty soon after.
His try was a peach. On the edge of the 22, Russell delivered a flat pass that Lawrence accelerated on to bumping off both Gabriel Oghre and Piers O’Conor. Those tackles slowed his momentum but only as much as a residential speedbump would delay a Challenger 2 tank.
Poor Oghre was again left in the dirt when straight from the resulting kick-off, Lawrence again picked a perfect line. Centre partner Cameron Redpath kept on his shoulder and in turn fed Spencer who had just enough gas to reach the corner flag. Russell converted from the touchline to give Bath a 17-7 lead.
Lawrence also showcased his defensive ability as he shot out the line to cut down Ibitoye, but there were plenty of Bath players who were required on the back foot. Flanker Miles Reid came up with two huge interventions, firstly intercepting Vakatawa who broke clean through the Bath defensive line and then forcing a turnover on his own tryline after Randall had initiated a searing counter-attack.
However, the Bath defence would buckle ten minutes into the second half when Sheedy delivered a perfect crossfield kick for Rich Lane to ground the ball in the corner, a tactic that has yielded four tries already this season.
Four minutes later, Bath had the lead. Russell’s high-risk, high reward style has played a large part in Bath’s strong start to the season, but the flip side is what happens when those gambles backfire. Forcing a pass that was not quite there, Russell was intercepted by Ibitoye and what followed was a brilliant interchange of passing, highlighted by Harry Thacker’s no-look offload, that was finished in the corner by Max Malins.
In a further twist on the Russell rollercoaster, he missed a penalty bang in front of the posts. However he would make amends from the tee on 69 minutes having manoeuvered them deep into Bristol territory with an excellent grubber as Bath rise to second in the league