True to his word, Pat Lam has guided his Bristol Bears side to the near-perfect season opener. With the lofty goal of achieving a top six finish and Champions Cup qualification first time out, Bristol have put away old rivals Bath in front of a packed out Ashton Gate Stadium.
A singular try for winger Alapati Leiua paired with four penalties from the boot of Irish international fly-half Ian Madigan proved too much for Todd Blackadder's Bath.
Bristol's early attacking intentions proved slightly over-enthusiastic, sprinkling the odd manic moment across their opening 40 minutes. In the end, a Bath side plainly still plagued by last season's woes couldn't capitalise on their opportunities, including a try 5-meters out from Bristol's line after pressuring their oppositions scrum and seeing inside centre Tusi Pisi sent for a 10-minute spell on the naughty step after a knock-down while offside.
Conversely, Wallaby wing/fullback and eventual Man Of The Match Luke Morahan provided the game-breaking moments that allowed the Premiership returnees to keep their local rivals on the back foot despite a staggering penalty count of 15 to Bath's six.
The horribly familiar feeling of underperforming will sit in the stomach of both players and coaches during Bath's short 30-minute coach trip home. However, newly arrived attack coach Girvan Dempsey will be lifted by the performances of young England backrow hopefuls Zach Mercer and Sam Underhill.
Mercer, shifted to the blindside from his preferred position of eight due to the presence of Wales and Lions star Taulupe Faletau, provided more than the odd moments of magic going forward. While Mercer's success making meters came from twinkling feet Austin Healy will have found useful while on Strictly Come Dancing, Underhill's eye-catching moments came from an improved carrying and offloading game, paired with his usual dominant contact area and breakdown efforts.
Tonight's win will set the Bears with added confidence, newly blessed with the confidence of taking down one of the biggest names in English rugby. Bath may have made their neighbour's task slightly easier, but that will not prevent Lam's squad from walking into training on Monday with a skip in their step and the occasional extra wide grin.
Blackadder will look to once again right the wrongs of inconsistency and a failure to capitalise on chances afforded them. The reasonable notion of early season rustiness will soften the mental blow suffered by his squad, but the Blue, Black and White will need a spirit-lifting victory soon if they are to prevent a slow rot that could derail a feeling of positivity between the players.
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