This past week has been quite the sight for Mark Tainton at Bristol, the Bears’ plush new training ground opening for business and accommodating the jaw-dropping sight of swashbuckling signings such as Semi Radradra and Kyle Sinckler on the prowl ahead of their Gallagher Premiership restart on August 15 when Saracens visit Ashton Gate.
It’s all had an immediate galvanising effect as the Bears seek to pick up the thread of a season suspended in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, a stoppage that will see the club chase after the top-flight title with a very different complexion to four months ago.
The world has changed in the interim and so too have Bristol, their third-place squad getting hugely overhauled as it returns to an English rugby landscape still adjusting to the myriad of slings and arrows prompted by the pandemic.
Rancour has run rife through the sport in England but the atmosphere is seemingly all sweetness and light at Bristol as they rejoin the battle for eagerly desired success.
Their long-term ambitions may have suffered a bloody nose over the course of the layoff, but their initial resistance to the Premiership’s reduced salary cap – which comes into play next year – has given way to a compromising U-turn and a renewed sense of purpose that apparently hasn’t been blighted either by the enforced player pay cuts that caused consternation at some other clubs.
It hasn’t been a good look for the sport, the various grubby faction fighting that has taken place, but Bristol CEO Tainton believes across the board peace and goodwill will relievingly break out just as soon as the games get going next month and people start focusing on match results rather than the challenging financials that have dominated the rugby narrative these past 17 weeks.
“It definitely will (settle down),” said Tainton to RugbyPass. “Obviously, there have been a few disagreements which is understandable where we are at the moment. People will look after certain areas of their business and they are right to try and protect their business.
“But once rugby starts playing again and we don’t get a second (virus) spike or anything like that, it will just grow back into where we were. Hopefully, these disagreements will be settled very quickly and we will all work together to make the Premiership one of the best leagues in the world again.”
Bristol’s glamorous recruitment policy is certainly poised to play its part in ensuring that revitalised status materialises. With potency such as Charles Piutau already on their books, their creativity habitually elicits envious glances from their rivals and draws local fans to Ashton Gate in record numbers.
But now, even though there is no indication yet that crowds can safely return to matches, their stylish menace is set to become even more threatening with the arrival of Radradra and co. However, they are well aware they will need to cut their cloth accordingly in future with the salary cap reduction signed, sealed and eventually agreed after a period of blood-letting and hand-wringing.
“We have got this salary cap coming in so it’s going to be more difficult for every club to attract top-end players on a financial basis because the salaries are being cut to meet the salary cap,” admitted Tainton, who is banking on the burgeoning Bristol reputation making up for the reduced remuneration packages.
“We believe we have got one of the best rugby stadiums in the country, we now believe we have the best training centre in the country and that is not bragging, that is just factual of what we have managed to develop over the last year or so.
“The player who wants to come to us, they want the best facilities to work at and we have built our coaching staff up to what we think is one of the best in the league as well. It’s also about coming to the club to develop yourself and become a better player and a better person and if we continue to do that we will be able to attract top-end players to play at Bristol.
“For the salary cap to be reduced it will put a strain on clubs’ negotiations with players to make sure they come within that salary cap going forward after next season. We initially wanted to keep the salary cap where it was and keep the two marquee players. We went out and said that and our reasons were quite transparent.
“We felt that if we didn’t agree with something and we wanted to put our point forward we should do it and not be silent and let other people dictate what is going on. Obviously, every club is in different situations and the situation we have we wanted to voice our opinion to make sure everyone was understood and also to give clarity to our staff and to our players what our intentions were.
“We believe we want to keep the Premiership as potentially the best league in the world and to make sure we had the best players in the league, but the clubs have had the salary cap reduced and to reduce the marquee number of players was going to have a major factor in that.
“Look, when we sat around the table there was negotiation and you have got to give and take in these situations. We got some things that we wanted in the meeting and the other clubs got things that they wanted. I had total understanding and empathy with all the other clubs and what their situation is so we have got to make sure we can make it viable and workable for all the clubs in the league.
“We’re probably in a better situation than most, but that is just the way they have ruled in this one. All we can say is we recruited what we wanted now, we have our squad of players and they are all happy in the negotiating we have done for them or on their behalf going forward.”
The recent Lord Myners salary cap recommendations laid bare the precarious financials of the England game, its findings emphasising how collective losses of just short of £89million were recorded in the combined year-end 2017 and 2018 accounts.
Professional rugby is clearly an expensive business and while Tainton is doubtful it can eventually realise any lavish profits, he believes Bristol are capable of becoming sustainable and ring-fencing of the Premiership is something he would like to see added to the mix to help make this happen.
“Profits I’m not sure about but the clubs can become more sustainable. We have a plan that Steve Lansdown and the board put in place before the Covid-19 came in, a five-year plan to try and get the club sustainable. That has been pushed back slightly because of this situation. But it is our target and if we carry on generating the crowds we had up to when Covid stopped play, there is no reason why that (sustainability) won’t be the case.
Home is where the ? is.
— Bristol Bears (@BristolBears) July 11, 2020
“Ring-fencing will still be on the agenda,” he added. “Mainly because the Championship at the moment, the amount of money that they have lost and a lot of the clubs have already said they are going to go semi-professional.
“That is an ongoing negotiation that will be brought to the table pretty soon again. Where am I on that? I’m probably a fan of ring-fencing personally. It makes a club more stable and allows you to invest knowing where you are going to be the following year.
“With that threat of relegation there was always the question of will sponsors stay or will they move on? On the other side, it is exciting – relegation and promotion are exciting and supporters like it. But at the moment there are 13 franchises in Premiership Rugby and my thoughts are I am for ring-fencing… I think it will happen.”
Whatever plays out, Tainton will make a point of keeping the Bristol players and staff in the loop. It’s an open book approach that stood to them during the lockdown whereas some rival clubs were beset by disenchantment about a lack of communication.
"Guys were messaging each other on Instagram: 'Like bro, I'm hearing you are getting pay cuts'. This is guys from other English clubs and I'm just like, 'Bro I have no f***in' clue'"
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 8, 2020
“It’s important,” insisted Tainton about being approachable and accountable. “We tried to be as transparent as we could to all our players in what we did and how we tried to do it and what the future looks like. We had regular Zoom calls with them to give them updates on where we were, what we were doing and what our future looks like. They were very, very appreciative of that.
“At the moment we have got a very happy camp. Everyone is training really well in the new facility and they can’t wait to get back playing. They are professional rugby players and they want to play rugby.
“All going well we will be playing on that weekend in August, be it behind closed doors or even with small crowds. We don’t know yet but we just need to get back playing for the players’ sanity to a large degree and our coaches’ sanity. That is what they are employed to do and that is what they want to do. The reaction we have had this week, it has been a good starting base to restart the season.
“The boys were in for the first time on Monday for testing – we had a 100 per cent all-clear from the testing – and they were blown away with the facilities. For us, it has come at a great time to give everyone a boost… I’m on my way to the training ground now and every time I drive through the gate, drive down the driveway and see what we have developed there, it’s magnificent.
? New coaching team unveiled
? World class standards
? All eyes on restart
Pat Lam talks new faces, raising the bar and preparation for @premrugby's return. ?
Full interview and story ?
— Bristol Bears (@BristolBears) July 10, 2020
“No-one really knew the severity of Covid-19 (when rugby stopped in March). We all thought we’d be back playing sooner than we are now, but it is what it is… we’re on a journey and we are getting there.
“We are all working towards that weekend of the 15th to start playing rugby again. I will be massively excited the players will be playing again, but having in mind that no-one tests positive the following week for Covid and put a halt on things.”
Already, the presence of Radradra is having an uplifting uptick on preparations. “He is probably one of the best players in world rugby at the moment. I’m excited about seeing him put the Bristol shirt on and playing at Ashton Gate,” said Tainton enthusiastically.
“It has been great to watch him coming to our new environment and how professional he is. Already that is rubbing off on some of the younger players. If they can pick up great trends from him it can only benefit the club going forward.”
In the record books as the club’s all-time record scorer, Tainton is chuffed at the ambition of the Bristol compared to what he found when he became caretaker head coach during the 2016/17 relegation season that resulted in Andy Robinson’s sacking.
He had been a long time removed from the Bristolian scene having carved out a successful kicking coach reputation abroad with Grand Slam-winning Ireland and being the voice regularly giving tuition to the likes of Ronan O’Gara and Johnny Sexton.
Rather than get pushed aside upon Pat Lam’s arrival, Tainton diverted into a chief operations role that has since resulted in him being promoted to CEO and being to the fore in the collective blueprint that has Bristol lifting Champions Cup and Premiership titles.
“I pinch myself. I’m very pleased and massively proud to be CEO of the Bears. It’s a club I played all my rugby at and to come back full circle and be the CEO of the business now is fantastic… it was (daunting), but I was fortunate. In my time in Ireland, you got to spend an awful lot of time with very good business people and very good rugby minds, and I still have contact with people over there that I respect massively and take advice from. I’ve built myself into the role.
?| "I've been blown away by it and for the players to see it finished, it's amazing. It's a massive boost to everyone involved in the club." ?
CEO Mark Tainton hails #BristolBears ? 'world class' training facility. ?
Full video and interview ?
— Bristol Bears (@BristolBears) July 9, 2020
“The initial thing is the separation you get from players in the role I’m in now. You don’t have the day to day contact with them. You have got to take a step back, got to look at are they right for the club, are we paying the right kind of salaries for them, are we paying too many salaries for them, are there better people we can bring in, can we move them on?
“That is one of the challenging things but I have grown into it. I’m into my third year now and it’s enjoyable. You learn all the time and as long as you improve at what you’re doing day by day and week by week, it can only benefit everyone.
“It is night and day (compared to 2017),” added Tainton, comparing ailing Bristol back then to how they shape up now under Lam’s shrewd stewardship. “We had some players who probably weren’t capable of playing week in, week out in the Premiership. We had to get rid of an awful lot of players and move them on.
“I thought it was going to be a struggle for a number of years, I didn’t think we would turn it around so quickly as we have. That is a credit to all the coaching and medical staff… we have developed a squad and we’re not shy of our ambitions.
“We went to go and win the Champions Cup, we want to win the Premiership and the investment we have put into the squad, into the coaching team and into the training facilities just echoes that. We just want to improve every single year and challenge the best teams. It’s not just good for the rugby club but for the whole city.”
“If you say I’m really struggling, I’m not playing, I’ve been injured, if you say that and work on yourself to be stronger I don’t see how that can be a negative."@whhurrell illustrates how the power of a positive outlook can overcome such adversity ? https://t.co/SKmNnqgGBq
— The RPA (@theRPA) April 27, 2020
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now