Bristol Bears head coach Pat Lam is keen to put theory into practice when his side return to Premiership action at Northampton Saints today, writes Andrew Clayton.
The Ashton Gate outfit ended their last block of games with a 34-16 win over rivals Gloucester back in January.
Although the break for the Six Nations disrupted a chance at building momentum, Bears were glad to see the back end of a festive period which had brought three back-to-back losses.
However, conflict resumes today as Bristol travel to Franklin’s Gardens to face a side sitting second in the table, with six wins from nine games.
It is a club which director of rugby Lam knows well, having won the 2000 Champions’ Cup during a three-year spell with Saints.
Speaking exclusively to The Independent, Lam said: “I’m looking forward to getting back – I always enjoy going back to Northampton, but they’re playing well.
“I think Chris Boyd has got them humming nicely and, weather permitting, it could be a great game. You’ve got two teams that enjoy using the ball, so we’re looking forward to it.”
As a strategist and a pragmatist, Lam pointed out that today’s match would offer a chance to put into play not only the exercises from the February break, undeniably helped by a lack of call-ups in his ranks, but also the lessons learned from that disappointing spell.
“We finished the last block on a good note against Gloucester after a bit of a slump we went through,” the former Samoan international said.
“Some of these boys didn’t take their break, they’re desperate to get back in so they spent their weekends in the strength and conditioning rooms and on the field, to get back as soon as possible.
“We’ve tidied up a few areas of our game and we’ve had the last couple of weeks to continue to add to and improve it, and we’re excited to try it out against Northampton. You’re learning after every game, win or lose, but certainly after three games in a row you go back and look closely at it, identify some key areas where were struggling.
“That’s the beauty of having a system and the clarity on the way you want to play – it’s easier to pick up when something has gone wrong.
“It’s always easy to say, ‘let’s just work harder’, but work harder at what? We tidied up a few areas and it paid off against Gloucester. There’s a bottom line for us and we never drop below that standard.”
Full-back Charles Piutau will grace the turf sooner than initially expected. The former All Black had been ruled out until the end of February after damaging his mediate cruciate ligament in the defeat to Leicester.
However, the 28-year-old returns today as the only change from the side which beat Gloucester. Harry Thacker remains out with a neck injury, with fellow hooker Shaun Malton taking his place, while Luke Morahan switching to the wing.
Meanwhile, Lam refused to confirm or deny speculation about fly-half Ian Madigan making a return to Ireland at the end of the season.
The 30-year-old ended Bears’ 2017-18 Championship- winning campaign as the top scorer, but has seen his chances limited this season, owing to the form of Welsh pair Callum Sheedy and Ioan Lloyd.
Speaking to reporters, Madigan revealed that he would have to consider his future with his contract expiring in the summer, but Lam said he can only select based on performance.
“Ian is the same as every player in the squad; every week they are challenging for places in the team and my job is to pick the strongest possible team,” he added.
“The players’ jobs are to perform. Players always consider their futures and where they want to go.
“Ultimately, I have a good relationship with all the players but it comes down to performance and pushing hard.
“Every week, I want guys to push hard for their place in the team and Ian is doing that.”
Bristol: C Piutau, Morahan, O’Conor, Bedlow, Leiua, Sheedy, Randall, Woolmore, Malton, Afoa, Attwood, Vui, Luathua (capt), D Thomas, Hughes. Reps: Capon, Y Thomas, Thiede, Joyce, Heenan, Uren, Madigan, Purdy.