Lam per­fect­ing mix to keep Bris­tol in top flight

Open­ing game showed how coach is mould­ing a squad blessed with old heads and young blood

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Sport - SIR IAN McGEECHAN

When I was coach at Northamp­ton Saints in the late 1990s, we used to have a “brains trust” which we called the Mag­nif­i­cent Seven. It was ba­si­cally se­nior play­ers such as Matt Daw­son, Paul Grayson, Tim Rod­ber and so on, and we would talk through ev­ery­thing we were do­ing on and off the field, look­ing at things from ev­ery con­ceiv­able an­gle, and putting all our thoughts and ideas out on the ta­ble.

There would be some very left-field stuff, but it was good. It got us think­ing and it was at the heart of what we were try­ing to do as a group, the game we wanted to play. Our goal was ba­si­cally to cre­ate a game good enough to beat Toulouse – then the top team in Europe – within five years.

I have al­ways been a fan of this way of work­ing. While you might dis­agree on cer­tain things, by talk­ing it through you all end up look­ing at them from each other’s view­points and set­tling on a fi­nal de­ci­sion. And, most im­por­tantly, you get a clar­ity of tac­ti­cal ap­proach for which ev­ery­one takes re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Pat Lam was one of that group and he was fan­tas­tic value. It was ob­vi­ous that he had a very an­a­lyt­i­cal mind. He was al­ways look­ing for new ideas. He would chal­lenge you as a coach and chal­lenge his fel­low play­ers.

When I moved to Scot­land I had no hes­i­ta­tion in tak­ing him with me as an as­sis­tant. And when, after the 2003 World Cup, the Auck­land chief ex­ec­u­tive called me in to talk about Pat (he had ap­plied for a post there), I had no hes­i­ta­tion in rec­om­mend­ing him.

It does not sur­prise me in the least that Pat is where he is now. I thought that Bris­tol’s 17-10 win over Bath on Fri­day night showed what he is all about. Pat is a top man. He is hon­est and he cares for his play­ers and wants them to care for each other. That might sound trite but it’s true, and I think play­ers re­spond to that. I am sure a ma­jor part of why play­ers have joined Bris­tol is be­cause Pat sees that char­ac­ter­is­tic in them.

It shows in the way they play. Bath dom­i­nated Fri­day’s game for the first 20 min­utes of each half. Bris­tol were ham­mered in the penalty count and were down to 14 men for a pe­riod of the sec­ond half. But they never stopped try­ing to play rugby, they never stopped work­ing.

And as soon as they got an op­por­tu­nity they at­tacked. They had self-be­lief. They ended up fin­ish­ing both halves the stronger team, play­ing all the rugby.

It is clear that Bris­tol will try to play a pass­ing game this sea­son. Ob­vi­ously there is an in­her­ent risk as­so­ci­ated with that. They will make er­rors and they will be picked off at times. But I don’t think they will only play one way. Pat will chal­lenge them to adapt and try to find their op­po­nents’ weak­ness.

They are not go­ing to play safe­ty­first rugby, they are go­ing to try to chal­lenge teams, move the point of con­tact. You saw in the way they went wide, and then when Bath be­gan step­ping up they be­gan to send short run­ners in­stead. They were think­ing on the hoof.

You could al­most see Bris­tol adapt­ing to the phys­i­cal­ity and in­ten­sity of the Premier­ship in that first half on Fri­day. And they will have to keep adapt­ing as the sea­son goes on. But I think we have seen al­ready that Pat is pre­pared to chal­lenge them to do that.

Yes, Bath made er­rors. Tom Homer spilt what should have been a try in the first half, Rhys Pri­est­land missed a straight­for­ward penalty in the sec­ond. They were on top, with a man ad­van­tage in the sec­ond half. They could have won. But you have to give Bris­tol credit.

They spent 20 min­utes camped in their own 22me­tres in the sec­ond half, but as soon as they got a sniff they were right back on the at­tack.

They had en­ergy and be­lief in what they were do­ing. What im­pressed me was the way in which they stayed to­gether when they had to de­fend; how you play when you don’t have the ball is the real mea­sure of a team.

I was im­pressed with Bris­tol’s play­ers in­di­vid­u­ally as well as col­lec­tively. Ian Madi­gan will be so im­por­tant to them this sea­son with his kick­ing. Keep­ing the score­board mov­ing in games will be very im­por­tant. Steve Lu­atua and Ge­orge Smith were both hugely in­flu­en­tial. Smith was in and around the ball all the time, slow­ing Bath down. Those big play­ers will need to be con­sis­tent. But I was also im­pressed by the re­place­ments, par­tic­u­larly Andy Uren, who came on at scrum-half.

Most peo­ple were prob­a­bly won­der­ing who on earth he was but he dom­i­nated the last 15 min­utes of the match. He was su­perb.

I think Bris­tol will stay up. Not be­cause of this win. London Ir­ish beat Har­lequins in the open­ing game last sea­son and ended up get­ting rel­e­gated. But this felt dif­fer­ent. A record home crowd of more than 26,000 at Ash­ton Gate, a won­der­ful at­mos­phere, fans who went away happy and op­ti­mistic. I think Premier­ship Rugby chiefs will be de­lighted with that as a first game of the sea­son. Bris­tol clearly have the foun­da­tions. OK, they do not have the strength in depth that other teams have, but they have things that oth­ers don’t. They have Ash­ton Gate, the fan­base, the at­mos­phere. Most im­por­tantly, they have be­lief.

Their young re­place­ments came on and made the team stronger. And don’t for­get, they do still have a few big names to come back, no­tably the Pi­u­tau brothers.

This win gives them a base from which to build. It will give the play­ers be­lief, the fans be­lief, it will give Pat be­lief. Bris­tol have some tough games com­ing up. They are away at Saracens next week­end for starters and they would not have wanted to go there off the back of a home de­feat in their first match. Now that pres­sure is lifted.

Know­ing Pat, I think he’s prob­a­bly thank­ful he had a sea­son in the Cham­pi­onship to get his feet un­der the ta­ble, to en­gen­der the spirit we saw on Fri­day night.

As I say, he will have to keep adapt­ing, and the play­ers will have to keep adapt­ing as the sea­son wears on, but we have seen now what Bris­tol are all about.

This was a great state­ment of in­tent and I couldn’t be happier for one of my Mag­nif­i­cent Seven.

Bris­tol had en­ergy and be­lief in what they were do­ing. They stayed to­gether when they had to de­fend

Job done: Pat Lam heads for the dress­ing room while the Bris­tol bench cel­e­brates the vic­tory over Bath on Fri­day night, which was sealed with Ala­p­ati Leiua’s late try (be­low) in front of a record crowd at Ash­ton Gate

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