Despite all the uncertainty, 2019-20 turned out to be a fine season for the Bristol Bears and they’ll be aiming to reach even greater heights this time around.
Third in the Premiership before losing out 47-24 to Wasps in the semi-finals, they recovered from that setback to win the European Challenge Cup courtesy of a 32-19 victory over Toulon.
This is all just two years after winning promotion back to the top flight and with the excellent Pat Lam at the helm, the future looks bright.
Progress Built on Patience
A large part of the Bears’ success in recent years has been down to long-term planning. Bristol spent seven seasons in the Championship following their relegation in 2009 and during that time, signed several players who would be Premiership-ready should they be promoted.
Switching leagues three times in as many seasons between 2016 and 2018 seemed to leave them battled-hardened and the investment in the club both on and off the field has further allowed them to develop, attracting world class talent.
Class Across the Field
The last six months or so has been no exception with Fijian centre Semi Radradra, one of the most exciting runners in world rugby, arriving after signing a deal post World Cup 2019. Meanwhile, despite openly admitting he is still to find his best form since joining from Harlequins, tighthead Kyle Sinckler remains a cornerstone of the England pack.
Those have been the headline arrivals in a squad that already included England number eight Nathan Hughes and former All Blacks John Afoa and Steven Luatua, while behind the scrum, the Piatau brothers Siale and Charles, provide further quality.
Their international class is complemented by the likes of academy pair Ioan Lloyd and Callum Sheedy. Aged 19 and 25 respectively, both have represented Wales in recent weeks and while both favour the number 10 shirt, Lloyd’s ability to play at full-back allows Lam to accommodate him.
More Trophies the Target?
After finishing third last year, a maiden Premiership Grand Final appearance has to be the goal. The Bears started their season with a dramatic 23-20 defeat to Wasps before a spirited 30-13 bonus point win over Worcester.
They will be hoping for more joy on Friday when out-of-form Northampton come to town. The Bears won both of the pair’s meetings last season, running out 47-10 winners at Ashton Gate. They are
50/53 with a -5.5 handicap and a win could set them up for a big December.
Continental rugby returns the following weekend, with the Bears preparing for the third Champions Cup campaign in their history. Having proved their pedigree in last season’s Challenge Cup, they are a tempting
28/1 to back it up with another European success.
Pool B rivals Clermont are the visitors in the opening round on December 12, before a trip to Lam’s former club Connacht on December 20.
With Harlequins on Boxing Day, Bristol have a chance to end their year on another high, with all the ingredients there for an even better 2021.
* All odds correct at the time of writing