Having avoided relegation as well and comfortably as anyone involved with the club could have hoped for last season, Bristol Bears and their prospects for the 2019/20 campaign were hard to read coming into this season.
Would they build on the success of their return to the Gallagher Premiership, when they finished an impressive 20 points ahead of relegated side Newcastle Falcons? Or would they suffer a sophomore slump and find themselves dogging it out in a relegation battle? Thankfully for a number of clubs, Saracens’ enforced points deduction and relegation took the prospect of the latter off the table, though it has benefitted Bristol in a very different way.
With the reigning English and European champions rooted to the bottom of the table, Bristol have been able to move into the playoff spots in the Premiership, where they currently sit at 3rd, just two points behind Sale Sharks and less than a two-game swing behind league leaders Exeter Chiefs.
As such, it is understandably a frustrating time in the south-west. The league season has been suspended with the Bears looking in a good place to make the postseason and barring a swift return to play, it’s likely the season will be shortened – potentially ruling out the playoffs – or even brought to a premature end.
Beyond those initial frustrations, however, there is plenty to smile about for the passionate Bristolian fanbase.
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The shared vision of owner Stephen Lansdown and Director of Rugby Pat Lam is beginning to be realised, not only on the pitch, but also off of it.
The club’s state of the art training facility that is being built in Failand should be ready for action come June and will be a stark contrast from the club’s more basic current premises at Clifton RFC. Not only will that be a benefit in terms of training, preparation for games and player welfare, it will also be a far more appealing prospect for potential recruits when it comes to Lam’s attempts to build the squad he wants.
Speaking of recruitment, Bristol have caught the eye with perhaps the two biggest signings of the season so far in the forms of Fijian back Semi Radradra and England tighthead Kyle Sinckler. Beyond being high profile players who generate excitement, they also fit Lam and Bristol’s DNA perfectly.
— Tom Vinicombe (@TomVinicombe) March 18, 2020
Radradra’s ability as a ball-carrier speaks for itself and he will add that power, incision and skill to keep phases alive to a back line that already boasts Charles Piutau, Piers O’Conor and Luke Morahan, not to mention the complementary half-back pairings of Harry Randall/Andy Uren and Callum Sheedy. With the tempo those half-backs can deliver and the subsequent mismatches, through numbers or players on the back foot and without time to reorganise, defences are going to have to pick their poison from the duo of Radradra and Piutau.
Up front, not only does Sinckler arrive as one of the best set-piece tightheads in world rugby thanks to his development over the past couple of seasons, he is one of, if not the best ball-handling prop currently playing the game. He is powerful and mobile enough to excel as a ball-carrier, where his offloading game can then come to the fore, whilst his array of passing as a first receiver is arguably unmatched across the entire front row globally.
Then come the temporary loan arrivals of Ben Earl and Max Malins, two wonderfully talented players who are currently banging on England’s door. Earl adds another carrying option to a pack that not only has Sinckler ready to deploy, but also Harry Thacker, Steven Luatua, Chris Vui and Nathan Hughes, a group which is as exciting as any in the Premiership. Likewise, Malins adds his well-rounded skill set of distribution, incision and creativity to the aforementioned back line, whether as a rotation option with Sheedy and/or Piutau, or pushing Piutau out to the wing and taking up a role as the incumbent full-back.
The one area where the vision of Lam and Lansdown is not quite yet being realised is in that of a Bristolian core to the side, something which Lam has spoken about repeatedly since making the move from Connacht to Bristol. The return of Mitch Eadie will contribute to that next season, although it is understandably to the academy that Lam will need to look.
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What rugby player would you love or hate to be stuck with for 2 weeks? ? pic.twitter.com/OnQhIyK4ZV
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 17, 2020
Uren ticks that box, too, although it is emerging players such as Will Capon, James Dun, Charlie Powell and Jack Bates whom the pressure will be on to step up and help form that core. From this year’s group of U18s, wing Deago Bailey, lock Charlie Rice and loosehead Andrew Turner will be prospects who have their eyes on those sort of roles in two or three seasons’ time, as they spearhead a particularly talented group at that level this season.
It’s a tough balancing act to maintain, recruiting star players from outside the club but also staying loyal to the club’s identity and roots through a productive academy that, critically, has a clear pathway from the juniors through to the seniors. Without faith that the pathway is there and traversable, players will often become disenchanted and leave to try their luck elsewhere.
It was something that Saracens were able to do, albeit we have subsequently found out that was partially done so illegally, and eyes will now be on Bristol to see if Lam’s Auckland and Pacific Island core can do the same thing for the Bears and their young players that the South African group did for Saracens. If the two clubs follow the same path, it won’t be until Bristol truly blood that homegrown group and they rise to prominence that being competitive at the top of the table and in Europe will translate into trophies.
Whilst frustrations will of course exist for Bristol should this season be canned early, with a raft of quality signings and academy promotions incoming, a brand new training facility and an owner who is more than capable of underwriting the financial losses that the lack of revenue over the next few months would cause, things are pretty positive in the south-west right now.
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