How Bristol got serious: 'Blown away' by an afternoon in Bear Country
2021 was the year Bristol Bears got serious: when they grew fangs and sharpened their claws, metamorphosising from a fluffy Premier 15s Paddington to something more akin to the baddie at the end of ‘The Fox and the Hound’.
They tore through the standings – defeating Harlequins, Wasps, Gloucester-Hartpury, and Exeter in a historic season which culminated in a historic semi-final.
They could’ve, should’ve beaten Chiefs at Sandy Park, but for some last-gasp heroics from USA’s Jennine Detiveaux. An Eagle might have dashed Bears’ dreams that afternoon, but a new era had officially begun in Bristol.
If you had to pin it to one moment, it would be the eternally effervescent and full-throttle Dave Ward putting pen to paper in Pat Lam’s office, and becoming the new women’s Head Coach. Crucially – it was a job offer which, as per his stipulation, gave the programme access to the club’s High Performance Centre in Abbots Leigh.
Now there was a new figure at the helm, and a world-class infrastructure at his disposal. His squad would want for nothing, and enjoy the same environment as the men – who were fresh from topping the Gallagher Premiership.
Semi Radradra would henceforth rub masterful shoulders with Amber Reed, as human highlights reels Charles Piutau and Sarah Bern shared a canteen.
It’s season two of the Ward-HPC series: Bears are no longer dark horses, although it’s taken a mid-season rounding into form to see them cruise up and into a semi-final spot – where they’ve four points on fifth-placed Harlequins.
The tussle for that remaining berth is ferocious, and this weekend’s coming round could well prove decisive. Bristol host a wounded Exeter Chiefs at Shaftesbury Park, before Amy Turner’s Quins women attempt to conquer Kingsholm on Sunday. If Ward’s side can bank table points, and those in quarters can’t, then they might well reach back-to-back playoffs.
Given that they’ve now won six on the spin, their ever-enthusiastic Team Manager Tom Bedkowski has been inviting me to visit their set-up for over a year now, it was time to go on a Bear hunt.
We’ve mentioned everyone’s favourite marmalade-chugging mammal already, and it’s – appropriately – at Paddington Station where my day starts, before a verdant cab ride through sun-drenched West Country fields, where black and yellow signs, sporting a silhouetted predator, begin to spring up.
We’re now, apparently, in ‘Bear Country’. It’s melodramatic as anything. I love it. The campus itself comes into view from the crest of a slight hill, and is properly impressive – helped in no small way by the fact it’s the first sunny day of 2023, and the sprinklers on the immaculate Lansdown Pitch are adorning the whole thing with rainbows. The club’s insignia is everywhere – you’d see fewer bears on a trip to Hamleys – and this proud trumpeting of identity continues all day.
Muralled Bristolian triumphs roar down at me in reception, where I’m met by my tour guide – Ward himself – and shown the sights. It’s all state of the art, lovingly designed, and pristine. There’s a small rubber crumb for skills sessions, an indoor 4G known as ‘The Barn’, and two pitches meticulously maintained to mimic the turf at Ashton Gate. ‘Foxy’, the club’s groundsman for the past nine years, is a maestro, and these emerald rectangles his pride and joy.
I’m no Alan Titchmarsh, but even I can see that the surfaces are flawless. For tens of thousands each per year to maintain, you’d want them to be.
The Barn boasts a stadium-sized big screen, so that video analysis can be seamlessly integrated into training (watch – play – repeat), and then flows, via a boot room with personalised pigeon holes, into a spanking new gym. Yann Thomas is in there when we pass through, and putting an unbelievable sound system through its paces with a selection of house classics. I’m pretty sure I’ve had quieter nights at Warehouse Project.
We emerge, bass still ringing in our ears, into a corridor homing treatment rooms, the medical centre, a hot tub (purchased by Radradra with a little help from his teammates), and a nutrition store. The men contribute towards refilling the wall-mounted protein dispensers, but the women get their supplements for free, and their meals provided whilst at training. The food’s delicious, apparently. Of course it is.
The final, fabulous, touch, is that Ward’s team share a dressing room with the academy – but it’s solely theirs from mid-afternoon each day. The youngsters go home, it’s cleaned, and then the sign on the door is physically unscrewed and replaced with one reading ‘Women’s Changing Room’ – so they have the run of the place uninterrupted.
Once they’re done training, they can hang out (table tennis, anyone?) in the canteen, or – if they’re feeling diligent – head to the meeting room to get some analysis in. Every training session is filmed from three angles, which are then synchronised and made available to the squad – along with match footage – on a fleet of gleaming Macs.
The facilities are ridiculous. Saracens’ new West Stand might come close, but – otherwise – I’ve never seen anything like this in club rugby. Speaking to the squad, it sounds as though they haven’t either, and they frequently get laughingly accused of being in a ‘cult’ when waxing lyrical about the place in international camps.
They don’t mind – safe in the knowledge that anyone who visits the HPC ‘gets it right away’. Ward acknowledges the challenge of making sure they don’t take this set-up for granted. The theory at Bristol, he tells me, is that the club will provide absolutely everything its athletes could need to be world class: it’s up to them to bring the hustle.
It’s in the small things, too. One hallway is lined with framed headshots of the club’s senior internationals in their Test jerseys, so that each capped athlete’s selection is recognised. Delaney Burns and Bryonie King were the latest to ceremonially hang theirs, but a row of unadorned nails are left jutting from the wall along from their beaming faces.
This is a ‘big thing’ of Lam’s, Ward says: it’s important that uncapped players see that there’s space for them on the wall, and are constantly reminded what they’re striving for.
This afternoon, there’s a (teddy) Bears picnic. The players arrive with an assortment of treats – much to the delight of the facility staff (whose offices are grouped by department, rather than by team – to encourage the pooling of ideas and sharing of storylines between the men, women, and academy programmes).
First to arrive is breakout star Reneeqa Bonner, whose Biscoff cheesecake genuinely looks ‘Bake Off’ worthy, and is immediately earmarked as hot property.
Bern is next to arrive – hauling a decadent prosciutto, mozzarella, and sundried tomato sandwich in a homemade sourdough loaf so large you could use it as a tackle pad. It looks outrageously good, and is gone in moments. Abbie Ward, of course, already has a bun in the oven – but found time to whip up a generously-iced sponge for proceedings – and then chats away about the culture at the club whilst more athletes flood in – cooing and cackling over one another’s contributions.
Their Monday this week? Yoga, gym, and then skills for the full-time athletes and those able to attend from lunchtime. The former light-hearted but focussed, the weights session DJ’ed by new Red Rose Burns (‘I don’t know how to describe her taste…’ Keira Bevan muses. ‘Basically whatever’s on TikTok. If I had my way – it’d be pure Cher and Shania’), and the latter fascinating to watch.
Ward has them working in short, sharp segments, which grow more and more demanding – and showcase the sheer athleticism of his charges. I could watch Phoebe Murray and Reed pass all day, I realise: their skillsets are as formidable as Bonner, Grace White, and some of the youngsters are spongelike in their coachability. The soundtrack has shifted from pop to shrieks and giggles, but all undercut with tangible competitiveness.
The rapport between coach and squad is contagiously high-energy – ‘come on, Delaney – I could pass harder than that!’ ‘prove it, then!’ – and Burns later tells me that sessions, and the week as a whole, feel carefully patterned with light and shade. Ward’s feedback is instant and candid, but then not dwelt upon, and the fun drills make it much easier to go at it hammer and tongs at other times.
After a short break, there’s a team meeting before the evening session, which is focussed on Saturday’s visitors. Clips are loaded up on the Barn’s big screen, where the side prepare to better negate Susie Appleby’s prolific outfit, having been thumped 41 – 0 by them in February.
Bears last played on Saturday, and Exeter on Sunday: they know, Ward observes, the importance of the extra day’s preparation. Every gain could prove significant at the weekend, when a win would put them in the driver’s seat for that final play-offs spot.
I realise, as the day unfolds, that it’s going to be hard to write something about Bears which doesn’t read as sycophantic. This is not sponsored content. I’m not signing for Bristol next season (although they are making some announcements on that front next week…). I’m also not saying that what they have is entirely unique: the Premier 15s is a league full of wonderful clubs.
What’s clear, though, is that this is a fantastic group of players, with an infectiously passionate and driven head coach, and in an environment carefully constructed to promote excellence. I’m blown away. If they reach the semi-finals again – it will make sense. If they go even further in the next few seasons – that will make sense, too. Quality plus endeavour plus investment, more often than not, make results.
As I pull back into Paddington, a statue of one of the most famous bears of the lot is across the platform from me. I’m grateful to it for the neatly cyclical ending to this week’s column, whilst thinking ‘Sarah Bern makes a better sandwich than you…’
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