Pat Lam has shrugged off concerns that recruitment-hungry Bristol could break the Gallagher Premiership’s £7million salary cap, the Bears boss claiming his PRO12 title-winning stint at cash-strapped Connacht taught him how to live within a budget.
Having already recruited Kyle Sinckler and Semi Radradra for a squad that already contains Charles Piutau, Lam caused a further stir earlier this week when he signed Fijian flyer Ratu Naulago from rugby league’s Hull.
In the wake of the Saracens salary cap controversy, which resulted in the London club’s automatic relegation to the Championship for 2020/21, there been increased focus on the spending habits of some other Gallagher Premiership clubs, including Bristol who had multiple stars on their roster before any of the recent signings were unveiled.
With only two marquee players exempt from the £7m salary cap limit, it has led to a debate on whether Bristol are playing by the rules which caught Saracens out. Lam, though, insists that they are, the coach vehemently defending his club’s eye-catching spending spree for the 2020/21 season.
Appearing on the latest episode of The Rugby Pod, Lam said everything is above board at the club he joined in 2017. “Bristol has never spent up to the cap and even currently with the squad, I know there has been a lot of speculation and rumour about our cap, but we’re still under the cap,” he told Andy Goode and Jim Hamilton.
“We have got a lot closer this time than we have in previous seasons but there is a lot of planning and working out, and players come and go. The squad I inherited, the money was heavily stacked to players who weren’t No1, players that had the experience but they weren’t playing or they were injured.
“So it was a complete overhaul of the structure to make sure that if you are going to be the No1s you have got to be world-class or heading towards world-class. Champions Cup is our ambition, to be that sort of team, to be the most dominant in Europe.
“Players playing for England would never play for England if our rugby programme was average, and then the home-grown players was important. Steve (Lansdown, the owner) and Chris (Booy, the chairman) gave me control over the academy to re-arrange the structure.
“Everything is geared now and the amount of homegrown boys that are coming through now… you have got to balance it all out, so the money is geared towards performance and what brings bums on seats, what can add value to our overall plan.
“I see the salary cap as vital but if we go over the salary cap, mate, come and point the gun at myself, Mark Tainton, our accountants and our board, not anyone else. At the end of the day, it’s our responsibility and I have worked in a place beforehand (Connacht) where I knew there was no way we were going to compete (financially) but we can work with what we can work with and be prudent with what we are doing.
“Growing the game is one side of it but the other side is when I got here everyone in the Premiership told me, ‘This is the best competition’. Now, remember I come from Super Rugby, also from the PRO12, PRO14 now, and there is always the question, which is the best?
“Well, if you’re going to be the best you got to have the best players or have the ability to recruit the best players. With the marquee rule, I remember bringing in Charles Piutau and people said it was crazy.
“I brought Charles Piutau here not only for his rugby ability but I knew him personally. I knew he could add value on and off the field. I knew it wasn’t a gamble because it wasn’t about getting the best players, it was about getting the right players who will grow our game, grow our brand, grow our product.
'I actually had to retire over a Zoom call. I had all the boys, all the staff and there is me getting emotional'
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 26, 2020
“It’s the same with Radradra. I’m a big follower of NRL and saw him play, but I didn’t have any interest in bringing him here. It wasn’t until I coached the Barbarians and I saw him, got to meet him, built a relationship, saw what he could do.
“Also while I’m seeing everyone relaxing and enjoying themselves as it is the Baa-Baas, here’s this guy doing his pre-hab/rehab stretches, an ultimate pro. That’s why I had the interest to bring him here. He will bring massive value into our Premiership and into Bristol, but also grow our great game and help us be commercially viable as well.”
These new signings, such as England and Lions prop Sinckler, will be available to Bristol from July 1, boosting the squad that helped the club to reach third place in the league when the season was suspended in March. “We have been in touch with the guys that are coming in, making sure in the next four, five weeks that we are getting back a lot of these calls working through game plan stuff and then connections and having these guys involved.
“Mitch Eddie is an example. He’s finished at Northampton now. While he doesn’t start officially until July 1 he is a Bristol boy and he is already connected in some of the groups already. The boys are helping them out. It’s something we have got to plan for and we are pretty pleased with the guys that will come through.”
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