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Putting the fight back in the Bear: What's changed at Bristol?

By Lucy Lomax
Bristol Bears Womens Head Coach Dave Ward during the Allianz Premier 15s match between Bristol Bears Women and Exeter Chiefs Women at Shaftesbury Park (Photo by Bob Bradford - CameraSport via Getty Images)

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Bristol Bears Women ended last season unable to string two consecutive wins together. Labelled as under achievers in the league since its revamp in 2017, the West Country side under former coach Kim Oliver never finished in the top half of the table and at the end of last season stood in eighth.

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The squad made some intelligent signings in the off season such as England internationals Abbie Ward and Leanne Infante (née Riley) and prevalent Wasps hooker Hannah West, but the majority of players stayed the same heading into the new campaign.

You may ask what has changed so suddenly to see Bristol recording five wins from five in the league, beating reigning champions Harlequins convincingly on their own turf at The Stoop and currently sitting top of the table above Saracens on points difference after five rounds?

Enter new Head Coach Dave Ward.

The former Harlequins hooker started his coaching career over a decade ago including a seven-year stint as Head Coach of Guildford Rugby Club and more recently as forwards coach at Championship club Ampthill. Ward explains why he decided to up sticks and move to Bristol and switch to coach the women’s game.

“I’ve been open and honest that Bristol is one of the only clubs I would have applied for. Bristol is my hometown, my mum, sister and brothers all still live in Bristol and the opportunity to head up the women’s programme, once I’d had the interview with Pat (Lam) and seeing his vision for it, I went for it whole heartedly.

“Being a professional rugby player means I got to work with some of the best (coaches) in the game so you’ve got to utilise that and any coach will tell you, all coaching is, is stealing the best little bits of every coach you’ve ever worked with and putting it into whatever makes you unique. It’s something that needs to be crafted, I can’t just say I played in the Premiership x amount of times and now I want to coach, it’s not quite as easy as that.

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“My coaching philosophy is if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. If you carry on doing the same thing, you’re not going to get different results.

“The results last season weren’t through lack of effort. I watched Bears against Exeter last season at home when they just lost and it’s very similar personnel all putting in the effort but it’s small things to change and they’d have been on the right side of the result.”

It’s not just been the results which have changed under Ward’s stewardship but the performances as well. When Bears take to the field we see free-flowing rugby with offloads and continuity. Ward partly credits these improvements to moving to the high-performance centre in Abbots Leigh which they now share with the men’s team.

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“Moving to the high-performance centre this season where we get to train at some of the best facilities in the country has been a big factor. We had a lot of injuries last season and we have planned our schedule to increase that robustness with the girls to ride out the contacts a little bit more which has really helped.

“When I first came here I wanted to install a set of values for the girls. We have five values that we stick to, one of them is to elevate each other and one of them is to be brave and certainly I’d like to think the girls have that bravery on the pitch to go and play and express themselves, although within a controlled structure.

“You see the Premier 15s highlights and the Sarah Bern step and her offloads, that’s within the structure and it’s about playing in a system that allows her to do that.”

The team has a total of 14 internationals currently away on international duty (ten from Wales and four with England). Talent has never been in short supply at the club but their strength in depth this season is impressive. Take for example their scrum-half position which currently has two internationals fighting over it (Wales Keira Bevan and England’s Leanne Infante) with other players also vying for the shirt in form of Lucy Burgess and Rhi Parker.

Ward believes it’s the strength in depth, including internationals and other players attracting the attention of international coaches, plus the club mentality which continues to make a difference.

“One of my biggest key things as a player and as a coach is to bring everything back to the squad. We love to see individual success but it comes back to the squad. If the squad delivers then individuals will shine within that and I think that’s what we always try and do.

“When Jaz Joyce does something that Jaz Joyce does we’ve got to celebrate it, it’s unbelievable but the reason she could do that is because of the squad and the effort everyone is making. If you look at any position we have strength in depth.

“Players such as Hannah West, Phoebe Murray (both of whom are currently joint top try scorers in the league) and Simi Pam- her set piece has come on hugely, I know that’s an area she wanted to improve and she has done, you saw her scrummage against Shauna Brown in the Quins game- all three of those players should be knocking on that door (for England).”

At the beginning of the season, Bristol were reluctant to announce any performance targets but after five rounds Ward is more comfortable stating his goals.

“The goal was to improve on last season and we’re five from five and we’ve done that already. Obviously we want to make the top four but there’s another five or six teams who also really want to make top four so it’s so competitive. Just as easy as you win five games, you can lose five games so we’re keeping our feet firmly on the ground.”

Next up in the league Bristol face two huge challenges of Wasps who sit third in the table at Shaftesbury Park and Saracens away. One has to say, if the winning run continues and they come through those two games with results under their belts, Bristol really will be into unchartered territory in terms of their league position and performances in the Premier 15s era.

To potentially dethrone the once untouchables of Saracens and Harlequins from their two-pronged perch at the top of the tree is good for the league. You can’t help but wish Bristol well as they progress through the season and in their current form, you wouldn’t discount them from reaching the knock-out stages and even a final.

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