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'Interestingly, I'd been told that Pat was a bit of a dictator'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images)

Former England lock Dave Attwood has revealed his negative-sounding impression of Bristol director of rugby Pat Lam, but it didn’t put him off joining the Gallagher Premiership club in 2019 and going on to help them win the European Challenge Cup in his first season. The Ashton Gate club feature in this week’s Rugby Stories podcast on BT Sport, charting the year when Bristol truly announced itself as the real deal against a backdrop of a global pandemic.

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Before Lam took over in 2017, Bristol had a reputation as English rugby’s yo-yo club, regularly bouncing between the Premiership and the second-tier Championship. That era, though, soon became unrecognisable under the former Samoan back-rower as Lam guided them back into the top flight in 2018 and they went on to become Challenge Cup champions two years later.

That inspiring story has now been retold through the eyes of Attwood, Lam and out-half Callum Sheedy, who vividly recalled the squad’s first-ever meeting with their new boss. “Pat was very clear with the vision he had for the club,” remembered Sheedy. “He definitely talked the talk.

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“I always remember the first meeting he had, he was very frank and said this is where we want to be in two years, this is where we want to be in three years, four years, five years. If you don’t believe in it, if you don’t 100 per cent believe in it, the door is there, you can go. Pat definitely wants players who are 100 per cent on the bus, 100 per cent going in the same direction he wants to go.”

In those early years of Bristol under Lam, Attwood was moving between Bath and Toulon but he was aware of the change taking place at Ashton Gate prior to his arrival for the 2019/20 campaign. “Interestingly, I’d been told that Pat was a bit of a dictator, it’s his pathway or the highway,” he explained.

“It is easy to paint that in a really negative light but ultimately if he is trying to imprint his vision on the rugby club, his vision on the field, that needs to be true. It needs to be his vision, not diluted down by other people and other coaches having their input and tweaking things, and Pat is very understanding that different people take on different information in different ways, they take it at different speeds and that was really clear.”

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That coaching culminated in Bristol defeating Toulon in France in the pandemic-delayed European decider in October 2020. “The week of the Challenge Cup final was probably the most disrupted week of professional rugby I had been involved with,” reckoned Attwood, who has since rejoined Bath.

“The travel arrangements, the fact there were no fans, the fact that people hadn’t been in a final, we’ve had to change training, had to change venue, there are concerns about covid, there are people getting tested. Even up to the day of the day, on the day of the game suddenly they are saying there are going to be 1,000 French fans there and now there are arguments well hang on, that is a covid risk.”

Despite all those distractions, Bristol prevailed 32-19 to leave Attwood overjoyed with the outcome. “It’s a bit like you have been holding your breath for 80 minutes and suddenly you can breathe again and you’ve done it, just the vindication of it was so emotionally rewarding.

“There is a photo of me just sat on the floor at the final whistle. I’d never won a campaign trophy, it was why I joined Bristol, it was one of the things I spoke about with Pat. It was one of my huge motivations about why I came to work every day.”

  • For the full Bristol episode, check out BT Sport’s podcast series, Rugby Stories, part of the BT Sport Pods lineup of podcasts. Every Monday, Rugby Stories, presented by Craig Doyle, will spotlight and celebrate English club rugby history. Btsport.com/pods
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