Even by the standards of these parts this was a wild, rain-lashed evening but Bath successfully rode the intense Friday night storm. Two wins from their opening two European games have set them up nicely in Pool 5 and their forwards ultimately proved too strong for a winless Scarlets side who now face an uphill struggle to qualify for the knockout stages.
It is not impossible for a team to qualify having lost their first two fixtures but, for the second successive week, Scarlets discovered that Europe is an unforgiving playground. Home defeats are grievous blows and six penalties from their former fly-half Rhys Priestland was enough to deliver Bath a sodden but quietly satisfying outcome. “We couldn’t argue on the day, they were the better side,” admitted the Scarlets’ head coach, Wayne Pivac.
This kind of European occasion is nothing if not character-building and, tactically, Bath made life awkward for their opponents throughout. On a fine, dry day there are few more dangerous or enterprising sides than the Scarlets but the visitors dominated the territorial contest and gave their hosts scant opportunities to use their pace out wide.
Priestland, using his local knowledge to the full, was similarly ruthless off the tee to claim the man of the match award and leave his director of rugby, Todd Blackadder, praying Wales do not call him up for the autumn internationals. “I hope not,” admitted Blackadder. “I really don’t want to be losing him. He’s performing really well.”
It was certainly not the night for silly offloads or foolhardy ambition. Five days earlier the Scarlets had been running around in the balmy Mediterranean sunshine of Toulon but any similarities with west Wales on a filthy, windswept evening were not immediately apparent. There is nothing to match European club rugby for crazy meteorological contrasts from week to week.
Bath’s forceful pack duly stuck to the basics, allowing the in-form Priestland to kick two early penalties either side of a typically accurate effort from Leigh Halfpenny. Kicking out of hand was less straightforward in the gathering monsoon and the inevitable aerial bombardment ensured neither of the two opposing Lions centres, Jonathan Davies and Jonathan Joseph, saw much in the way of useable attacking ball. Sometimes rugby becomes a simple battle of steely resolve and this was one of those occasions.
In Rhys Patchell the Scarlets, too, possessed a man with a siege-gun punt who watches the ball right on to his laces, a useful habit in demanding conditions. What won the Scarlets last season’s Pro12 title, however, was their adventurous handling and their 22nd-minute try defied the logic that everything should be leathered in the wet. A bold sequence of midfield passes put the left wing, Steff Evans, into some rare space and, when the supporting Gareth Davies was collared just short, Evans was there on his shoulder to complete a classic score.
Bath felt the initial pass from Evans to Davies might have been forward but the TMO ruled otherwise; it would have been a stony-hearted official who ruled out the evening’s most electric piece of skill.
Sadly for the home side they were also giving away too many kickable penalties and two further successful Priestland three-pointers restored Bath’s narrow lead before the interval.
Among the visitors’ other conspicuous performers were once again the youthful English pair of Sam Underhill and Zach Mercer, both of whom worked relentlessly hard alongside the Welsh international No8 Toby Faletau. Underhill’s coaches would like him to add more of a carrying element to his game but without the ball he is a persistent menace.
Given Bath were without their suspended Springbok flanker Francois Louw, Blackadder has an enviable number of back-row options and, defensively, they are an increasingly hard side to break down. In Priestland they also have a canny operator who knows the Scarlets inside out and was not about to let Patchell have an easy ride.
When the home No10 slightly delayed his clearance kick Priestland was there to charge it down and came within a hair’s breadth of scoring only for the TMO to spot a slight knock-on as he slithered towards the line.
It mattered not, with the fly-half landing two further penalties to send Bath back across the Severn Bridge in good heart, with only one try conceded in two games. Their back-to-back fixtures against Toulon in December now look set to determine the outcome of the pool and they, too, pose a decent threat in the dry. Not only Saracens are flying the English flag vigorously in Europe this season.
Scarlets Halfpenny; McNicholl, J Davies, Parkes (S Williams, 68), S Evans; Patchell (Asquith, 72) , G Davies (J Evans, 69); W Jones (D Evans, 68), Owens (capt; Elias, 56), Lee (Kruger, 63), Ball (Bulbring, 56), Rawlins, Shingler, Boyde (Macleod, 57), Beirne.
Try S Evans. Con Halfpenny. Pens Halfpenny 2.
Bath Watson; Rokoduguni, Joseph, Clark, Brew (Banahan, 63); Priestland, Fotuali’i; Obano (Catt, 49), Dunn (Walker, 64), Perenise (Andrews, 55), Ewels (capt), Charteris (Stooke, 66), Z Mercer, (Grant, 63), Underhill, Faletau. Pens Priestland 6.
Referee R Poite (France). Att 11,479