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'It's poor recruitment if you bring over someone hoping they are going to be good'

By Liam Heagney

Trending on RugbyPass

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Pat Lam volunteered nearly the perfect stat highlighting the importance of Bristol having skipper Steven Luatua in their Gallagher Premiership title-chasing team. Out in front with two rounds of matches remaining, starting this Saturday away to Leicester, the Bears coach suggested that the common denominator in their four league defeats this season – along with a pair of Heineken Champions Cup losses – was how Luatua was absent from their line-up every single time.

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Turns out, though, this wasn’t quite the pristine statistic that Lam had been led to believe. Yes, Luatua was missing from the league setbacks against Wasps last November, Sale in February and Sale again just last Friday night. His name was also nowhere to be seen on the Bristol teams beaten by Bordeaux and Clermont in Europe. However, the Premiership outing that spoiled this alleged common denominator stat was that Luatua had started in the April league loss at home to champions Exeter.

Lam wasn’t to blame for the bum steer he dropped into the conversation at his midweek media conference where he confirmed that Luatua should be available for selection this weekend versus the Tigers after his recent injury layoff. The ‘Steve has missed all our losses’ stat had instead been given to him earlier in the week by someone else.

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However, Luatua featuring in a 2020/21 defeat instead of missing all six losses can’t downplay the significance of the influence the former All Blacks back-rower has on the ambitious English club he joined in 2017 even though Bristol got relegated to the Championship after he had inked his contract in advance of the arrival of Lam as their new coach from Connacht.

It was after the Wednesday media conference that RugbyPass checked out the veracity of the Luatua absent statistic and found it wasn’t quite 100 per cent true. During the media session, though, this is what Lam had to say when we asked him to outline from his perspective the importance of the 30-year-old, 15-cap All Black to the Bristol set-up as he nears the end of his fourth full season at the club.

“I didn’t actually realise that stat,” said Lam when asked to elaborate on his Luatua and the Bristol loss statistic. “It was someone mentioned it to me this week, they realised Steven hasn’t been involved in the games we have lost in the Premiership this year and I went really? It hasn’t been something (Bristol have tracked) but it just shows the importance of Steve. I had Steve as an 18-year-old way back when I first met him in the academy back at home at the Blues in Auckland. To see where he was there to where he is now he has grown massively.

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“The big thing is Steve has been on this journey. I brought him in for the Championship at Bristol and he didn’t want to be in the leadership group then, he just wanted to get to know the players, build and so forth. But he is absolutely invested 100 per cent fully into Bristol and to everything, the journey. 

“Once he did that as a person, to me it has improved him as a leader. Steven naturally first and foremost as a captain, as a player, is class, the things that he does constantly works as the breakdown king and the effort, the technical stuff that he puts into the dark arts of the game.

“When we show footage of things that people don’t see, it’s normally Steven involved. He is very comfortable in the wide channels as well so as a rugby player he is always putting the effort in but then as a leader he naturally is a calm guy. You won’t see him getting involved in fisticuffs and going off angry and all that sort of stuff.

“He will play hard but he is calm, really calm. Even when you talk to him you look at him and he just takes his time, he thinks through things. He doesn’t just come out and says things, he thinks it through. He is a deep thinker but he is very intelligent. On the field he keeps everyone focused on what needs to be done. We have got some other good leaders but Stevie is a big part of that.”

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Luatua’s arrival at the then Championship club in 2017 was accompanied by speculation he might not justify the price tag and Bristol wouldn’t get sufficient bang for the big bucks they had spent bringing the back-rower over from New Zealand. Lam, though, insisted poor recruitment simply isn’t his thing and that the relationship he had previously at the Blues with Luatua made him certain it would be money very well spent by Bristol in the long run.

“If I bring in big players from the southern hemisphere it is because I know them, have a relationship with them, so I know they will be a success before they land, it’s not a guess,” he explained. “It’s poor recruitment if you bring over someone hoping they are going to be good and they are going to live up to it. There is quite a lot of hard work that goes into it. That is why some of the people I have turned down have shown up at other places and people are celebrating that signing.

“They might be good and so forth but they don’t know enough about the player or don’t really know them as a person, that is the key. What Steve is doing doesn’t actually surprise me. Same with Charles (Piutau) and same with Chris Vui, it was more around the people that knew him and then talking to him in an interview and realising that this guy will be fine. John Afoa, I had a long relationship with, so it’s about previous knowledge. I don’t like to take punts or spend not my money but the club’s money on a big signing that is a hope.”

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'It's poor recruitment if you bring over someone hoping they are going to be good'

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