England centre Ollie Lawrence scored one try and helped set up another as Bath claimed a 20-19 win over Bristol Bears in the Premiership on Friday.
Bristol almost pulled off a dramatic victory at the Recreation Ground, but instead, they fell to a fourth successive league defeat.
A 67th-minute Finn Russell penalty snatched the points for Bath after tries by Rich Lane and Max Malins hauled Bristol back into the match.
Just hours before kick-off, Bath bolstered their squad with the immediate signing of Italy’s World Cup hooker, New Zealand-born Hame Faiva, formerly with Benetton and Worcester and most recently with the Hurricanes.
Bristol were out of the blocks quickest, as number eight Bradbury finished off a succession of pick-and-drives at the home posts after five minutes, Callum Sheedy adding the conversion.
Russell replied with a simple penalty, and it was soon the visitors’ turn to be stretched side-to-side before Lawrence brushed aside Piers O’Conor and Gabriel Oghre to register Bath’s first try.
Russell had no sooner converted than he was placing the ball on the tee again after Lawrence burst upfield from the restart, and centre partner Cameron Redpath acted as linkman to send Spencer away to touch down at the corner flag.
The game continued in fast and furious fashion but Bath were guilty of as many spills as thrills, and Virimi Vakatawa, although closely marshalled, was an obvious threat for the visitors.
On the half-hour mark, the Fijian-born France international left home defenders floundering only to offload just short of the try-line to Bath flanker Miles Reid, who gratefully cleared downfield.
At the other end, Redpath linked well with Lawrence, but the chance went begging.
Another stunning Bristol counter-attack prompted by skipper Harry Randall should have earned a try, but when the ball was swept left, possession was lost on the Bath line.
Given the number of scoring opportunities, it was surprising that there were no further points on the board before half-time as Bath led 17-7.
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) November 17, 2023
Both sides adopted a rather cagier approach to the second half before Bristol scored two tries in four minutes.
First, Lane fastened on to a kick-pass by Sheedy to score a try in the left corner, and then replacement full-back Malins finished off a spectacular counter-attack inspired by Gabriel Ibitoye.
Sheedy was unable to convert either try, but Russell obligingly missed a simple penalty at the other end to leave Bristol 17-19 ahead on the hour mark, although Sheedy was then wide with a kick at the other end.
Malins raised Bath’s hopes by knocking on in his 22, and Russell nudged his side into the lead from a penalty under the posts. Spencer charged down Randall’s box-kick but could not hold on to the slippery ball.
Sheedy had yet another opportunity from wide-out, but his penalty attempt, although perfectly struck, dipped just under the bar.
Elsewhere, Sale Sharks wing Arron Reed scored two tries to send his side top of the Premiership table as they recorded a 40-22 comeback victory at home to bottom side Newcastle.
Outside centre Sam James and wing Tom Roebuck both crossed the whitewash in the final minutes as Sale quelled an inspired Newcastle fightback in the second half to win the northern derby.
England’s Ben Curry and South Africa’s Rob du Preez both scored tries for the hosts in the first half in an end-to-end game, which had a bit of everything.
As has been a usual occurrence at the AJ Bell Stadium this season, Sale started slow and went behind within two minutes.
Newcastle’s teenage full-back Ben Redshaw kicked a pinpoint 50-22 before the 19-year-old broke the Sharks line after the lineout, and several quick passes found Louis Brown in space to score a debut try in the corner.
Sale struggled to break the visitors in the loose, but a quick lineout just inside the Newcastle half went cross-field and wing Roebuck sent a kick-chase down the flank with fellow wing Reed dummying Iwan Stephens before getting the dot down.
The home side’s ill-discipline put themselves under the cosh as they conceded three penalties in a row to give Falcons a line-out five metres from the try-line, and a pick-and-go saw skipper Callum Chick power over on the left.
On the cusp of the half-hour mark, Sale took the lead as the hosts forced a penalty to get a line-out eight metres out before Curry muscled under a sea of bodies. Fly-half Du Preez converted to make it 12-10.
Sale quickly got another line-out deep in Falcons territory, and a Jonny Hill break went infield for Du Preez to dive over under the posts.
A Sale scrum in Newcastle territory was quickly whipped out, and Reed burst like a bullet through two defenders to score the home side’s bonus-point try under the posts.
Alex Codling’s Falcons restarted the second half with a spring in their step, and debutant replacement centre Oliver Spencer broke the Sharks line and forced a penalty.
The ensuing lineout from five metres went on the short side for hooker Bryan Byrne to dive over in the corner.
Four minutes later, Falcons wing Stephens gathered a loose ball and sprinted 40 metres downfield to score a solo effort under the posts for Newcastle’s try bonus-point as he made it 26-22.
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) November 17, 2023
Both sides had opportunities late on, but Sale’s new front-row started dominating both the set-piece and in the loose to force Newcastle to concede four penalties on the bounce.
After 76 minutes, Newcastle’s Spencer was sin-binned for an illegal rip on Gus Warr, leading to a second Sale scrum in front of the posts that was quickly whipped out by scrum-half Warr for James to power over.
In the final minute – with the clock in the red – Warr was again the instigator, linking up with James to free up Roebuck to sprint down the flank and slide over to complete a statement win for Alex Sanderson’s Sale.