'We've got 94 per cent availability': Bristol's rude health 52 weeks into non-stop year
Pat Lam had celebrated the unstinting work of his backroom staff at Bristol who have ensured the Bears are preparing for this Saturday’s home Gallagher Premiership semi-final with just two of the senior squad – hooker Bryan Byrne and winger Siva Naulago – unavailable for selection.
It was this week last year when Bristol first began their post lockdown training and their squad has been exhaustingly on the go since then as there were only a few winter weeks in between the end of the delayed 2019/20 campaign and the start of the 2020/21 season. That sounds like a recipe for disaster but Bristol have instead emerged from that onerous workload to reach the playoff stages of the latest Premiership in rude health after topping the table.
Last Saturday’s eleventh-hour cancellation of their round 22 match versus London Irish was effectively the only respite they have had in a year where they were Premiership semi-finalists and Challenge Cup winners last October and they went on to reach the Champions Cup round of 16 in April before going on to clinch the No1 semi-final seed in this Premiership.
It’s progress that Lam is immensely proud of and his pride was evident in the enthusiastic way he ran through a pile of seasonal stats when speaking at the Bristol media session ahead of this Saturday’s Ashton Gate Premiership semi-final versus Harlequins.
“I’m excited,” he said. “There has certainly been another lift as we get to the end. You have got to remember that yesterday [Tuesday, June 15] a year ago we started stage one of training with small groups, seven-hour days, guys coming in on groups of six. It’s 52 weeks ago. It’s been a long year and some serious commitment by a lot of people to get to this stage and we have got 94 per cent availability on the basis of some quality work from our head of medical Rory Murray and his team and our head of S&C Kev Geary and his team. It’s been a massive effort.
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“We have used 44 players in the 21 Premiership games (this season) and some of the so-called rock stars have played less… (Kyle) Sinckler, (Max) Malins, (Harry) Randall, (Ben) Earl – seven games. (Semi) Radradra, (Siale) Piutau, Siva Naulago – nine games. Callum Sheedy, Charles Piutau, (Luke) Morahan – 12 games, 13 games. Even Steven Luatua and Nathan (Hughes), only 14 of those games.
“So when I look at who has played the most, it’s a pretty satisfying list. Andy Uren, Jake Woolmore, Piers O’Connor, Will Capon, Yann Thomas, Dan Thomas, It has been a massive effort and we are looking forward to it. Huge credit to Rory and Kev and to the players. To get to this stage, the effort we put in allowed rotation. We have a pretty full-strength squad to select from and that brings its own headaches.
“The main two (unavailable) who would have been in contention are Bryan Byrne, who has had some surgery on his knee, and also Siva Naulago, who is recovering from his knee. He should be ready to go fit and ready for the start of next season, Bryan a little bit longer but otherwise everyone else is available.”
Adding to the sense of unbridled Lam pride was how, for instance, scrum-half Uren is a local from Bristol who goes out of his way to welcome people into the title-challenging Premiership fold. “Really proud of these guys,” continued the coach about the non-rock star names who have helped the club’s stars to excel.
“I look at the top of the list, Andy Uren, he was in the academy when I got here and he has got a great heart. People joke at him that he becomes best mates with Stevie Luatua when he arrived, best mates with Charles Piutau, best mates with Semi Radradra but he actually does that with everybody. He has got a great heart. He is proud of Bristol, he is proud of where he is from. He and Joe Joyce has been a great example of a Bristolian.
“People talked about the loss of Harry Randall (to February injury). Harry had come in my second year and has been excellent too but to me, I see them both equal. They are two half-backs that have given heart and soul, and Andy had to shoulder a lot of those minutes and responsibility and he has done extremely well.
“Jake Woolmore, second on the list. When I talked to him in Jersey he was hungry for an opportunity. He was at Exeter originally, got let go there and went down to the Championship. He has come on and been superb for us. Piers O’Conor was moving around from Wasps academy to Bedford and then he was at Ealing and we gave him an opportunity.
“Will Capon, when I arrived here he had just finished school at Bristol Grammar and my son, when we were looking at schools, he was the prefect at the school showing my son and me around. Now he has come through and played 18-odd games.
“And then Yann Thomas has come all the way back. He was in Rouen, let go by Gloucester, thought his days in Premiership were gone and he has been a mainstay for our pack. The list goes on.
“Dan Thomas, he came back and has been a superstar for us as well. And then Ioan Lloyd, straight out of school we gave him an opportunity. He played Bath, came on, scored a try on his debut. Those guys have done the programme proud, all the people that have worked with these guys. It has been superb.”
'Can you imagine a Premiership club going ‘Right lads, we’re going skiing’. Absolutely no way… it was me, Bryan Habana & Duane Vermeulen learning to ski together' @Dmjattwood fell out of love with rugby at Bath but found it again, writes @heagneyl ??? https://t.co/QWWZQPD1Ek
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