Bristol Bears’ record-breaking win over Harlequins last Sunday marked a team in high spirits, writes Andrew Clayton.
The West Country outfit saw off Quins 28-15 to rack up a fifth consecutive win for the first time in their Premiership history.
Luke Morahan got his side off to a dream start with a try in the first 47 seconds, crossing again before Chris Vui added a third and Callum Sheedy kicked the rest.
Although Bristol failed to score again in the second period, they kept their visitors on the back foot to record an important victory for a club with limited success in the top tier.
“It’s a good win for the boys,” said Bears director of rugby Pat Lam. “I understand it’s our fifth win in a row which is really good for the fans, but I was frustrated in that second half.
“There was a real opportunity to have a great game of rugby and unfortunately, I don’t think we were really allowed to do that. It made it very difficult in that second half.
“We got the win, but it was a missed opportunity to get that bonus point.”
The result propels Bristol up to third in the Premiership, two points behind Sale Sharks and three clear of next-placed Northampton Saints. While an extra point would have put clear water between third and fourth place, Lam’s frustration does not serve to spoil the party.
The pragmatic former Premiership winner is leading his team to the positions they deserve and, on paper, should be well on their
way to achieving.
There is a real feel good factor around Ashton Gate, the events unfolding off the field just as pertinent as those on it.
Bristol Sport chairman Steve Lansdown is not one to keep his powder dry, as developments at the club have proven.
In the summer, Bears signed back-rower Nathan Hughes and lock Dave Attwood, and throughout the season have snapped up the likes of Fijian superstar Semi Radradra and England international Kyle Sinckler.
Last week, Saracens pair Ben Earl and Max Malins agreed to move on loan for 2020-21 while Charles Piutau and new addition Henry Purdy, initially signed as short-term cover from Coventry, were just two of the highest-profile squad members to put pen to paper on new deals.
In the background, the new training ground in Failand promises to be a world-class facility upon completion later this year.
Saracens’ fall from grace may well leave an Exeter-shaped hole at the top of the table, but Bristol can claim to be the most in-form club in the West Country right now. Charles Piutau was named the Premiership ‘player of the month’ for February, as well as in the ‘team of the week’ alongside Vui and scrum-half Harry Randall while Alapati Leiua’s five-pointer against Bath in February was named ‘try of the month’.
The first half display against Harlequins, meanwhile, was Bears at their best, racking up 25 points with attacking, intuitive play, while the end result proved to be their largest scoreline since the opening day of the season.
What keeps them looking over their shoulder, however, is the fear of falling back into their festive slump. Four defeats in a row threatened to undo all the hard work and Bears threatened to slip back down to the lower echelons of last year.
However, they rallied back from the winter break and have been in fine form ever since.
“The defeat to Leicester in January was a big turning point for us,” Lam added. “We have put a lot of work in since then and taken on a lot of learnings.
“Fair play to the whole squad, they’ve come back and we’ve worked really hard and we’re building.
“There was a call about being focused and let’s start well and we certainly did that. The boys can be proud as it was a great try to start the game and then we were in control for most of it.”
It is unbelievable to consider Bristol were in the Championship only two years ago, a place in the playoffs and European glory still on the cards; their reputation as a ‘yo-yo club’ seems all but gone.
Having the resources to purchase and retain world-class players is a huge benefit to their game, but the Ashton Gate outfit are putting it to good use.
Time will tell if this lofty run produces the necessary silverware, for a cupboard kept bare by the propensity of former Bears sides to just fall at the final hurdle; the club has only won two of five Championship play-off finals and the last time the club was this high in the top tier was in 2007.
Lam is a winner, though, if his record at Connacht does not tell. The former Samoan international took on the Bristol job with one aim – to get promoted – and achieved that on the first try.
Premiership or European success may not be as forthcoming, but this side are well on the way.