Harry Randall talks about Bristol Bears as though this mighty rugby club is a cultural utopia, the perfect place for a fizzing young tyro to come of age.
He waxes lyrical about the Galactico players without accordantly stratospheric egos. The glistening new training base at Abbots Leigh. The willingness to challenge and cajole, to laugh and confide, to make mischief and be brutally serious. The brotherhood forged under that canniest of rugby men, Pat Lam.
You get the sense that any of his players, especially Randall, would run through a brick wall for Lam. The only walls the scrum-half has faced lately, though, are mental ones. First, weeks after his maiden England call-up for the Six Nations, he injured an ankle. Then, on his return to action for Bristol in the Champions Cup, he damaged his shoulder. In all, he has played 21 minutes of rugby since January.
“It’s difficult for people on the outside to realise how mentally challenging it can be, situations like that,” he tells The XV. “You have to have your sort of grieving process; you’re going to be frustrated, have a few cheat meals now and again just to make yourself feel a little bit better.
“It is frustrating, especially when you’re watching the boys throw the ball around and win games and you’re not a part of that. But you are excited to get back and be a part of it, knuckle down and get back as quickly as you can.
“It’s been a very frustrating back end of the season after a really enjoyable first half, but what’s rugby without challenges?”
Coming in every day after I got injured, having my mates around me, coaches that really care what you’re up to and when you’re going to be back. That was the biggest thing.
The timing of the injury could scarcely have been worse. But the Bears, he says, have helped him through.
“You’ve got people around you always lifting you, bringing energy, cheering you up. It’s hard to be down in that environment. Coming in every day after I got injured, having my mates around me, coaches that really care what you’re up to and when you’re going to be back. That was the biggest thing.”
This place has shaped Randall, the raw, pocket-sized kid with the lilting Welsh oratory who fetched up from Gloucester’s academy in 2018. Lam gave him his first professional deal, captivated by the vast potential within this 5ft 8in, 72kg stick of energy.
Randall moves with the stark, lithe dynamism of a striking cat. Size – or lack of it – has never dimmed his talents as a searing breaker of lines and finisher of tries. He scored the fastest in European history after just 15 seconds of Bristol’s glorious Challenge Cup final conquering of Toulon.
There have been body blows along the way, of course. In August, with Bristol trailing heavily-rotated Exeter 15-0 approaching half-time, Lam wielded the sword and replaced his toiling nine.
In January, against the same opposition, Randall was imperious, a try-scorer and man of the match at Sandy Park.
“I’ll never forget the time Pat took me off after 38 minutes against Exeter,” he says. “I was very upset at the time, but it was a massive benefit to me in the end. Mentally, I knew then what it took, you’ve got to be in the moment all the time out there, and it’s made me a better player. It’s made me work harder, want it a bit more. I never want that to happen again. Not just on the pitch but off it, he has mentally challenged. Every rugby player needs that.
“Pat has given me the belief and confidence; he backs me and believes in my ability to execute and do what he needs me to do for the team. Every player has a little one-on-one to review their performance after a game, and he is always challenging me to make me a better player.”
When Randall was elevated to the England squad this year, Lam hailed it as a victory for skill over brawn. The 23-year-old is a ferociously aggressive specimen with a seriously impressive power-to-weight ratio, but sub-80kg players in the modern game are critically endangered species.
The story goes that as a pup in the Scarlets pathway system, the region where he grew up and where his parents still live, some coaches thought him too small to make the step up with the big boys.
Look at the likes of Aaron Smith, I don’t think I’m massively smaller than him or these kinds of players. When you put it in context of some of the best nines to have played the game, I don’t think it’s a massive issue
“That was never really thrown at me personally, but I’m sure it was said. The main thing was, ‘You need to put on weight, get a bit bigger’. But looking back on my time down in Wales, I did enjoy every minute of it. I maybe wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t start down in Wales.
“The size thing, I’ve never thought of as an issue. Maybe people have different opinions. When you look at it, the likes of Aaron Smith, I don’t think I’m massively smaller than him or these kinds of players. When you put it in the context of some of the best nines to have played the game, I don’t think it’s a massive issue.
“You could be the biggest bloke on the pitch, but if you don’t use your strength and power effectively, there is no point being the biggest on the pitch. It’s about using what you’ve got effectively to benefit the team, and hopefully I do that well enough.”
Eddie Jones’ selection policy has, it is fair to say, been confounding. He stuck with the old guard through grim performances and barren days, but was happy to throw in the greenest of rookies in George Martin, while omitting Sam Simmonds, English rugby’s form player. Paolo Odogwu was called up but did not play. Ollie Lawrence was scarcely given a touch in his first four caps and was later dropped.
There is therefore no guarantee that Randall, as third-choice scrum-half, would have been capped this spring even had his ankle not given way two matches into the championship. The experience, though, was invigorating. He longs for more of it, to pull on the white jersey in a Test match.
The summer matches against USA and Canada present an exhilarating opportunity, one that would lay to rest any lingering conjecture over his international allegiances. Randall stresses that he was born in England to English parents, despite spending 16 years of his young life across the Severn when the family moved.
“Wales has a big place in my heart; it was a massive part of my childhood and my parents still live down there. But like I’ve said in the past, I am English and that’s the route I wanted to take.
“The intensity of training in camp was really good, probably a step up from what some boys are used to. It was just good to be in an environment with the best players in England. The likes of Ben Youngs, a 100-cap international, it was awesome learning from him. He was class with me, always trying to help me out. It was just good to be get a feel for what international rugby is like.
“I’ve always had the mentality going into an environment that I want to go there and play, push to start. I wanted to be capped, to be in the team. On the flip side, I knew there were things to learn while I was in there, and why wouldn’t I want to lean off a 100-cap international? I’m only going to benefit from that. I have benefited massively just from being in there for the couple of weeks that I was.
“Hopefully I can get a few games under my belt before the summer Tests and you never know. My biggest goal is just to get back fully fit, get a few games under my belt and go from there.”
On Saturday, Randall will play his second match in nearly five months as Bristol face the revitalised and frighteningly physical Leicester Tigers at Welford Road. The Bears top the Premiership by three points with two games remaining, already guaranteed a semi-final berth and a hair’s breadth away from the top-two finish that will secure a home tie.
Bristol have been here, perched atop the standings, for a vast swathe of the season. Internally, the bonds have strengthened and the benchmarks risen.
If a player messes up a two-on-one, you go up to him and say, ‘Mate, come on, that’s not good enough – we’ve got to be finishing those opportunities’
“We’ve all got really good relationships with each other, and when you’ve got that, you’re not afraid to say something that is maybe out of line and challenge people,” Randall says. “In other clubs, you’ve got people who don’t have as good relationships and you don’t challenge and you don’t get the best out of each other.
“It’s all done through love and care. We try and emphasise that if you’re getting criticised, don’t take it personally, it’s for the benefit of you or the team. People don’t take it maliciously.
“On the field, we challenge each other all the time. If a player messes up a two-on-one, you go up to that person and say, ‘Mate, come on, that’s not good enough – we’ve got to be finishing those opportunities’.
“Little things like that push the team forward, and keep raising our standards. We care for each other, which we’ve shown many a time this season.”
The ascent of Bristol has an inexorable feel to it. Lam has steered them from the Championship to the Champions Cup. Their semi-final last year was a harrowing affair, atomised as they were by Wasps. They rallied, grew, and went again a week later, beating Toulon to claim the Challenge Cup, their first major honour in nearly forty years. Bordeaux-Begles had their measure in the Champions Cup this term, the game where Randall did his shoulder, but the knock-outs were another step in the voyage towards greatness.
Mentally, summiting the league brings its own challenges. Bears have long been the chasers, the contenders, the hungry upstarts gunning to upset the status quo. Now, they are becoming the hunted. Sale Sharks delivered a bruising reminder of what may lie ahead in the semi-finals with last week’s dominant 22-12 win.
“We are massively going in the right direction, sitting at the top of the league since round 7 or something like that,” Randall says. “That’s where we want to be – a consistent play-off team pushing for that title year in, year out, being in that Champions Cup and hopefully pushing forward, getting to those latter stages and pushing to where we want to win it. We’ve all got big goals, big ambitions. We know they are very achievable for us.
“There are times this season where we’ve been nowhere near our best and managed to win games and that’s a sign of a good team. Finding a way to win. That comes back to our mentality and the character of the boys. Finding a way to win isn’t luck, it isn’t something that happens on the day, you have to have that past experience and mentality that even when you go down in points, we have the system and plan to win this game.”
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