Pat Lam has accepted that Bristol will have a big challenge on their hands in the business end of their Gallagher Premiership and Heineken Champion Cup campaigns with Ben Earl and Max Malins likely to return from England duty starved of game time, as will uncapped Harry Randall who is already back at the Bears and facing an eight-week layoff following Six Nations training ground injury. 

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Whereas Lam has been able to welcome Wales penalty kick hero Callum Sheedy back into the fold ahead of next Saturday’s Premiership game at Worcester due to World Rugby’s regulation nine governing Test player release, Earl and Malins are unavailable due to England deciding that their 28-man squad for the Six Nations would not be released back to their clubs at any stage during the tournament for fear any of them would contract Covid.   

It’s an awkward situation, especially as Bristol have been one of the best clubs anywhere in dealing with the pandemic as they have only ever had one positive case for the virus in the last twelve months. 

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For example, Sheedy missed some kicks when appearing off the bench for Wales at Scotland. However, he was able to play for Bristol at London Irish on the Six Nations week and that opportunity to get his eye back in during a live match situation was invaluable as he stepped off the bench last Saturday to boot the Welsh to their smashing win over England.

In contrast, Earl and Malins were restricted in February to fleeting appearances off the England bench and were not released back to Bristol. The inactivity regarding Randall was even worse, the scrum-half not making the England matchday 23s and then getting a training ground injury that will sideline him for quite some time.

It’s an issue that Wasps have already spoken about given that Paolo Odogwu could come back to them in late March having not played since January 8. Analysing this situation concerning his Bristol players, Lam said: “We have got Callum Sheedy back this week after his exploits. He was back for the London Irish game and straight back in, and he was in yesterday [Tuesday].

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“He had real energy, he was well celebrated for his efforts but he is getting consistent rugby. The biggest challenge we are going to face certainly is Harry Randall has played no rugby since January 9. By the time he gets back it is going to be twelve weeks, three months of no rugby at all, so that is going to be our challenge to get him back. 

“Max Malins has played 27 minutes in ten weeks and Ben Earl has played 45 minutes of rugby in eight weeks and by the time they get back (from England) it’s going to be twelve weeks. Hopefully, they are going to get some game time but if not that will be our biggest challenge. That is the longest break. 

“Harry got to where he is playing nearly every week of rugby and now he is going through a challenge in his career of twelve weeks of no rugby, three months. It’s a good pre-season I suppose. We will work with our staff and ensure they get back. Because we are going into the home stretch by the time they get back and it is big games, Europe, Premiership games, people will expect them to be at their best. 

“That is always going to be difficult when they haven’t had much game time. We’ll deal with it. The good thing is we understand it. Now we have got to get the work done to try and deal with that challenge.”

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Asked if this inactivity for the non-starters in Jones’ England squad was an oversight that should been identified by the RFU when plans for the Six Nations were initially being put in place, Lam added: “Everyone looks at it differently and the most important thing was the priority for England because normally that [player release to clubs] happens without Covid. 

“The main decision that was made and we knew that at the beginning 28 players were going to be selected and would stay. The concern was the Covid and so whether that is a mistake, that is not for me to say. The priority was they wanted to keep their bubble safe. 

“Obviously, Ireland is different. They are protected but they wanted their players to go back and play (PRO14 rugby) so that is a different philosophy. And Wales and Scotland with regulation nine, they can’t hold the players on those (non-Test match) weeks so they came back. 

“But again, we take all the precautions. We are all using the same testing so those guys, Callum was tested before he comes back and in our environment, we have had one positive for the whole testing since it started for a year now and we haven’t had an issue. But as far as the reasons behind it [with England], I understand every team is different and the priority was safety in that sense but it has worked out fine elsewhere.

“It is what it is. We knew that was going to be. It would be great for them to have rugby time but it’s not a problem, it’s a challenge and we have already put plans in place how we manage these guys when they get back because we can’t just expect them to go back with the lack of game time and expect them to play 80 minutes, start playing full-on rugby at a crucial stage of the year so we will work with the England team and our staff and ensure we get that balance right. Kyle (Sinckler) is fine obviously, he’s getting a lot of rugby.”

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