Tuesday 26 November 2019 4:04 pm

Premiership Rugby: Bristol Bears continue to go from strength to strength under Pat Lam as they lead the chasing pack

Top of the Premiership at the first European break and with two wins from two in the Challenge Cup, Bristol Bears are starting to reap the rewards of years of patience and hard work behind the scenes.

The domestic campaign is just four games old but victories over last year’s finalists Exeter Chiefs and local rivals Bath have helped put the club top of the table, four points clear of fifth place.

Battling relegation was once inevitable for the club but, with Leicester 10 points behind them already and Saracens penalised 35 points for salary cap breaches, avoiding it this season already looks certain.

Read more: Leicester Tigers stuttering start to the season highlights familiar concerns

Bristol have been attempting to re-establish themselves as a Premiership side following their relegation in 2009 and subsequent acquisition by Steve Lansdown, the billionaire owner of Bristol City Football Club, in 2012.

Lansdown had in fact been bankrolling the rugby team from 2008 as it struggled to maintain financial stability in the professional era and it yo-yod between divisions.

Bristol v Doncaster - Greene King IPA Championship
Bristol City owner Steve Lansdown (right) saved Bristol Rugby from bankruptcy

In 2010 they looked certain to bounce back immediately but lost the play-off final to Exeter. The rest is history for the Chiefs and their success since well documented, but Bristol would have to wait.

They lost play-off finals in 2012, 2014 and 2015 to Cornish Pirates, London Welsh and Worcester respectively before regaining their Premiership status in 2016, only to finish 12th and be consigned back to the Championship.

Lansdown’s efforts to acquire the best talent, such as Tom Varndell, Gavin Henson and Rhodri Williams, failed to achieve the expected outcome, but the move from the Memorial Stadium to Bristol City’s 27,000-capacity Ashton Gate in 2014 has helped the club become more sustainable.

Lam’s influence

This season’s opening-day 43-16 victory over Bath was a sell-out and a record attendance for the club – as well as an emphatic example of how far the team have come on the pitch.

Perhaps the most pivotal decision since Lansdown took over was the 2017 appointment of Pat Lam as head coach and, since the summer, director of rugby.

Bristol Bears
Bristol Bears Director of Rugby Pat Lam has been hugely influential since joining and is one of the reasons Nathan Hughes (right) signed

The New Zealand-born 51-year-old left Irish side Connacht to move to the west of England and orchestrated an immediate return to the Premiership, although the club would be rebranded as Bristol Bears rather than Bristol Rugby in a bid to broaden their appeal.

More significantly, Lam guided Bristol to ninth place last season and steered them 20 points clear of relegation, guaranteeing back-to-back seasons in the Premiership for the first time in a decade.

Breakthrough campaign

They were also just five points off the play-offs and a Champions Cup place, such was the close battle in mid-table last year.

While not the perfect campaign, it was a year of proving critics wrong after being widely tipped to go straight back down, and ultimately ended in frustration as much as celebration at what might have been as Bristol earned nine league victories.

Among the stars of the team were Samoan captain Chris Vui, hooker and fan favourite Harry Thacker who joined from Leicester last summer, and All Black duo Charles Piutau and Steven Luatua – the latter was nominated for the Premiership’s player of the season award.

Bristol Bears
Steven Luatua of Bristol Bears was a contender for Premiership Player of the Season

Flanker Luatua set the tone for Bristol’s aggressive game-plan with his work at the breakdown and ball-carrying. He made 22 clean breaks, 207 tackles and 177 carries throughout the season.

Full-back Piutau, one of the highest-paid players in England on a reported £1m salary, showed real glimpses of attacking quality too with six tries in 11 starts but his season was hampered by injury. This season he has rediscovered his fitness and started all four matches so far.

Further reinforcements

This summer’s acquisitions of England internationals David Attwood, from Bath, and Nathan Hughes, from Wasps, have only strengthened the pack and underline Bristol intent to keep moving forward.

Lam and his vision were integral to a number of players joining, including No8 Hughes and Piutau, who both worked with him in New Zealand.

But the development of younger talent has been just as important for the club, with English duo Piers O’Conor and Callum Sheedy, both 24, cementing their places in the back row following breakthrough campaigns last year that earned them a call-up to face the Barbarians in June.

Read more: Saracens’ Premiership points deduction leaves the Champions Cup wide open for challengers

This Sunday, Bristol face newly-promoted London Irish and will look to build on the record-breaking win over Bath, 16-10 victory against Sale and comeback from 17-0 down at half-time to beat the Chiefs 20-17 at the notoriously tough Sandy Park.

“Start again, take a breath, build a score, be there at the end,” Lam told his players at the break.

It is that patience and desire to respond to their many setbacks that epitomises how Bristol have emerged from a decade of difficulty and risen to the top.