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
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