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Full-strength Bears falling short

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Bristol's season teeters on the edge as Bears struggle to keep up with teams fresh with World Cup talent

Head back to the beginning of December and Bristol fans would have been feeling quietly confident with how their team were coasting along.

The Bears, who only gained promotion back into the top flight of English rugby a year earlier, had sailed through November with four wins from four matches and were sitting atop the Premiership ladder.

Their sole blip in the Premiership season to date was a five-point loss away from home to the Harlequins, but solid victories against Bath, Sale and Exeter still gave Bristolians plenty to cluck about.

It was a similar story in the Challenge Cup, with the Bears cruising to bonus point victories over Zebre and Brive, who had no answer for the complete rugby that Bristol were playing.

The likes of Charles Piutau, Steven Luatua and Nathan Hughes were causing havoc, no matter what the opposition threw at the Bears.

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Come December, however, and the wheels started getting a little squeaky.

The first sign of trouble was when the Bears fell to an unexpected 27-all draw against a considerably less fancied London Irish side. Less than two months earlier, Bristol has walloped the Exiles 44-27 in the Premiership Cup.

Back-to-back wins over Stade Francais in the Challenge Cup suggested that the London Irish draw may have been just a blip on the radar, but then things really started to fall apart when the Premiership resumed.

First up, a Saracens side looking to avoid relegation crushed the Bears 47-13.

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Then the Wasps – with just one win to their name – came to Ashton Gate and secured a 26-21 victory.

Finally, Bristol were trounced 31-18 last weekend by a Leicester side that would’ve been holding last place on the Premiership ladder were it not for the Saracens’ salary cap scandal.

Three weeks; three bad losses – and now the Bears find themselves parked in the middle of the table with two difficult matches coming up against Northampton and Gloucester.

The loss against Leicester will have impact beyond just the past weekend, however, with both Charles Piutau and John Afoa going down injured during the match.

The latest news suggests that Afoa will be out of action for the next two weeks while Piutau could make his return in late February.

Whilst the Bears have plenty of depth in the outside backs, Piutau has been a standout for Pat Lam’s side and sparked many a try from the fullback position. Luke Morahan, Mat Protheroe or Ian Madigan, who has been consigned to the Premiership Rugby Shield with Bristol’s A-team, could be called upon to take Piutau’s place – solid players, but none possesses the all-round game of the former All Black, nor the outrageous X-factor.

Bristol’s saving grace is that the Premiership will take a back seat for the next two weeks with European rugby taking over until the end of January.

The Bears, who are 10 points clear of Brive in their Challenge Cup pool, could throw away their next two fixtures and would still almost certainly qualify for the knockout stages of the competition, which gives Lam some time to right the ship.

For the sake of the players’ confidence, however, any more losses on the trot would be disastrous to the Bears’ campaign.

Lam will want his charges to reassert themselves as one of England’s top dogs over the coming weeks, with gimmie matches against Brive and Zebre the perfect opportunity for Bristol to bank some points, flex some muscles and get the engine churning for when Premiership rugby resumes on January 25.

Whatever happens over the next couple of weekends, however, Bristol will need to be at their best when they host Gloucester then travel to Franklin’s Gardens to take on Northampton, who are currently ranked second on the table.

With just five rounds to play in the Premiership, and just a single point separating Bristol in 5th from the Harlequins in 8th, there’s a very real chance of the Bears finding themselves languishing in a similar position to last year when the season draws to a close.

A spot in the Champions Cup for next season would have been Lam’s minimum goal for the current year, but a spot in the semi-finals is still very much within Bristol’s reach.

Saracens’ 35-point penalty has opened the door for last year’s mid-table sides to really push for a spot in the playoffs – and Bristol aren’t the only team that can smell the knockout games.

Should the Bears fail to take the season back by the scruff of the neck then pundits will rightly start to ask whether the early season successes were mainly a product of some of the bigger teams having to forge on without their stars from the 2019 World Cup.

Just five of Bristol’s current squad were required for World Cup duties but none of those players were called upon by England, who bowed out in the final on November 2. Instead, Alapati Leuia, Chris Vui, James Lay and Jordan Lay represented Samoa while Siale Piutau captained Tonga.

Samoa and Tonga were bundled out of the competition during the pool stages, which meant Bristol kicked off the Premiership season with all hands on deck.

Further, the likes of Charles Piutau, Afoa and Steven Luatua would have all likely been called up for the World Cup if New Zealand didn’t have such a stringent selection policy, which meant Bristol had access to a number of top-quality players from day one.

In fact, Bristol had a very easy run of it when compared with some of their early opponents.

Bath, who were the Bears’ first prey, were without Sam Underhill, Jonathan Joseph, Joe Cokanasiga, Ruaridh McConnochie, Anthony Watson (all England) and Francois Louw (South Africa) – whose nations both progressed to the World Cup final.

Exeter had access to their full complement of players when they fell to Bristol in Round 4, but that match took place just a week after the final, which gave the Chiefs’ stars little time to acclimatise to the Premiership.

In fact, Bristol haven’t managed a win over a fellow English side since the World Cup stars were all fully integrated into their teams – which doesn’t bode well for the rest of the season.

A run of bad form and injuries to key players could see Bristol’s season come to a train crash of an end if they aren’t able to pull themselves together in the coming weeks. The Challenge Cup, with three rounds of knockout matches to navigate, will never be a sure thing for the Bears and the glory of making the sudden death stages of the Premiership for the first time in almost 15 years should be the real goal for Pat Lam’s men.

Of course, success in the Premiership will require the Bristol Bears to put their recent poor performances against English teams aside and reaffirm their capabilities – and they may have to do that without their star player.

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Bristol's season teeters on the edge as Bears struggle to keep up with teams fresh with World Cup talent