|Bristol Bears (6) 17|
|Try: Leiua Pens: Madigan 4|
|Bath (0) 10|
|Try: Homer Con: Priestland Pen: Priestland|
Bristol Bears marked their return to the Premiership with a memorable 17-10 victory over West Country rivals Bath.
Three Ian Madigan penalties put last season’s Championship winners 9-0 up early in the second half.
Tom Homer, who dropped the ball when trying to touch down in the first half, crossed to get Bath on the board and a Rhys Priestland penalty put them ahead.
But Madigan’s fourth penalty put Bristol back in front before Alapati Leiua’s try clinched victory.
Leiua crossed again in the opposite corner shortly afterwards but the try was correctly ruled out for a forward pass, prompting Bristol to have to endure a nervy finale as Bath won a 5m line-out with 30 seconds left.
But the Blue, Black and Whites were penalised for the throw not being straight, and when Bristol booted the ball out of play from the resulting scrum, referee JP Doyle’s final whistle sparked joyous celebrations among a club record home crowd of 26,079 at Ashton Gate.
Bristol’s victory made them the third promoted club to win their opening fixture in the past four seasons, setting them up perfectly for their trip to champions Saracens next weekend, while Bath will need to regroup before they face another West Country derby at home to Gloucester.
After Madigan kicked the home side into an early lead they had to withstand a period of intense pressure and should have fallen behind when an unmarked Homer only had to ground Priestland’s pass only to lose control of the ball and knock-on.
That set the tone for a disjointed Bath display and they fell further behind to two more Madigan penalties.
Bath hit back when Homer capitalised on Zach Mercer’s break to score the first try of the 2018-19 Premiership season.
And the game seemed to be going the visitors’ way when Bristol centre Tusi Pisi was sent to the sin-bin for a deliberate knock-on and Priestland, who had earlier missed two kickable penalties, put them in front.
But Bristol rallied to lead again with 14 men courtesy of Madigan’s boot before Luke Morahan’s break and well-timed pass sent his opposite wing Leiua over in the right corner to get Bristol off to a winning start.
‘A huge boost for Bristol’ – analysis
Former Bath and England prop Gareth Chilcott on BBC Radio Bristol
Bath have been poor, but let’s not take it away from Bristol, they have done what they had to do.
When they were down to 14 men they defended manfully and came away with three points from a penalty.
But for me there were not enough Bath players who turned up tonight. If Bath play like this they will struggle in the Premiership.
This has got to be a huge boost in the arm for Bristol.
They are a stronger side than two years ago, they are more experienced and they have more know-how to control a game.
‘We had to dig deep’ – reaction
Bristol head coach Pat Lam:
“I am extremely proud of the guys. It has been a big day for the club.
“The thing about the Premiership is that we are going to be under a lot of pressure and spend time without the ball, and we had to dig deep as a team.
“It was a magic occasion tonight to kick off a wonderful competition. It’s nice to be back, and it was a good start for us, but we get back to work on Monday.”
Bath rugby director Todd Blackadder:
“The points were there for us tonight, but we just didn’t capitalise. It was one of those ones we let slip through our fingers.
“The annoying thing was the inconsistency of some of our actions. Some were brilliant, and some weren’t, and often in a dog-fight like tonight that can be the difference.
“Our ball into contact was really poor – we turned over far too much ball. When we did build a bit of pressure I felt we had them on the back foot, but we didn’t do it enough.”
Bristol: Daniels; Morahan, Hurrell, Pisi, Leiua; Madigan, Stirzaker; Thomas, Thacker, Afoa, Holmes, Vui, Luatua (capt), Smith, Crane.
Replacements: Malton, Woolmore, Armstrong, Latta, Lam, Uren, Sheedy, Edwards.
Sin-bin: Pisi (60)
Bath: Homer; Rokoduguni, Willison, Roberts, Cokanasiga; Priestland, Cook; Catt, Walker, Thomas, Attwood, Garvey (capt), Mercer, Underhill, Faletau.
Replacements: Dunn, Vaughan, Perenise, Stooke, Louw, Green, Burns, Brew.
Referee: JP Doyle (RFU)