Premiership: Bristol Bears thump Bath 43-16 in Premiership curtain-raiser
|Bristol (17) 43|
|Tries: Morahan 2, Hughes, Protheroe, O'Conor, Afoa, Lloyd Cons: Sheedy 3, Lloyd|
|Bath (13) 16|
|Try: Mercer Con: Priestland Pens: Priestland 3|
Bristol Bears opened the Premiership season with a thumping seven-try win over local rivals Bath at a packed Ashton Gate.
Luke Morahan and Nathan Hughes crossed early for Bristol but Zach Mercer hit back for Bath.
Mat Protheroe put the Bears 17-13 up right on half-time and his pace helped Piers O'Conor extend the lead.
John Afoa, Ioan Lloyd and Morahan again ensured Stuart Hooper lost his first league game as Bath director of rugby.
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Bath were beaten 17-10 in last year's season-opener on the same ground and they left Ashton Gate disappointed again, falling apart late on after Lewis Boyce was sent to the bin.
The hosts led inside two minutes through Morahan and showed ominous form in the first quarter-hour, with giant number eight Hughes impressing on his league debut and adding the second try after Kiwi Charles Piutau's dart through the Bath defence.
Rhys Priestland's boot and Mercer's try gave the visitors a brief lead, but quick feet and hands from the hosts saw them regain the advantage through the pacy Protheroe's excellent try on the stroke of the interval.
The Bears, who finished ninth last season, raced away in the second half, adding three tries in the final 13 minutes.
Bears thrill capacity West Country crowd
The visitors were missing England stars Sam Underhill, Jonathan Joseph, Joe Cokanasiga, Ruaridh McConnochie and Anthony Watson, as well as South Africa's Francois Louw, on the eve of the World Cup quarter-finals in Japan.
Bath, who finished sixth last term and level on points with fourth spot, gave a first Premiership start to wing Levi Davis, who is starring in ITV's X Factor Celebrity this autumn.
But it was a Bristol youngster who had a debut to remember as - after coming on from the replacements bench -18-year-old fly-half Lloyd crossed for a try on the night he became the youngest man to play in the Premiership for the Bears.
This hotly-anticipated West Country derby saw Ashton Gate's largest crowd for a sporting fixture since its redevelopment concluded in 2016, surpassing what Championship football team Bristol City - who share the venue with the Bears - have been able to achieve because home and away rugby fans are not segregated.
And the 26,399 in attendance were treated to some blistering rugby from the home side at times.
Having finished just five points off a play-off spot last term in their first campaign back in the top tier, the Bears have begun 2019-20 with a statement performance that highlighted their ambitions to play Champions Cup rugby and compete for silverware.
Bristol Bears director of rugby Pat Lam:
"I'm really pleased. The boys have been loading up and today they fired a lot of shots. We had to put on a performance and we're glad the fans are going home happy.
"It wasn't perfect. We knew if we got some more ball, the dam would burst if we kept putting the pressure on. It's pleasing but it's just the start.
"[Nathan Hughes] is a quality player. We've worked him hard in pre-season, he's shed a few kilos. I give real credit to him."
Bath director of rugby Stuart Hooper:
"I'm disappointed. At half-time, we were very much in the game. In the second half we gave away penalties and became ragged.
"If you do that against a team like this, you're going to struggle.
"The guys are realising that you can't just give away ball cheaply against teams who are happy to run on the counter attack."
Bristol Bears: C Piutau; Morahan, O'Conor, Hurrell, Protheroe; Sheedy, Uren; Woolmore, Thacker, Afoa, Attwood, Joyce, Luatua (c), D Thomas, Hughes.
Replacements: Malton, Y Thomas, Lahiff, Vui, Heenan, Randall, Lloyd, Leiua.
Bath: Homer; Brew, Clark, Wright, Davis; Priestland, Chudley; Obano, Dunn, Judge, McNally, Ewels (c), Williams, Ellis, Mercer.
Replacements: Walker, Boyce, Stuart, Stooke, Bayliss, Cook, Burns, Roberts.
Sin-bin: Boyce (65 mins)