Earlier this season, Nigel Pearson was sacked as Bristol City manager after a run of two wins in seven games. Pat Lam’s Bristol Bears, who share the same owners as City, are currently on a run of two wins in seven games heading into a derby against Gloucester which has a lot more riding on it than mere bragging rights.
The seven-year contract extension that Lam signed in 2021 offers him a degree of protection but Telegraph Sport understands there’s increasing disquiet within the senior Bristol hierarchy. If Lam is feeling the pressure, he does not show it as he patiently explains the hordes of missed opportunities in their current five-match losing run.
Yet this campaign does not appear as an outlier with the Bears falling way short of Lam’s own targets in the past two seasons which included them winning the Premiership and reaching the Champions Cup final. Instead they finished 10th and ninth respectively.
In 2017 when Lam arrived from Connacht, where he won the PRO12, he outlined a five-year plan which culminated in them becoming English champions. For the first three years, he exceeded those expectations: winning promotion from the Championship, consolidating their place in the Premiership, winning the 2020 Challenge Cup before finishing top of the league in 2021.
Then it all fell apart in the space of a single game, losing their 2021 home semi-final to Harlequins after holding a 28-0 lead. It counts as one of rugby’s biggest implosions and Bristol have not been the same team since.
Lam, however, advances an alternative explanation. “I think the biggest factor is that Covid hit,” Lam said. “We look at Covid now and it is like looking at the second world war, but we made decisions in the context of that time.” In the summer of 2020 when clubs agreed to reduce the salary cap to £5 million, there was a loophole that existing contracts would only count 75 per cent towards the cap. Bristol re-signed their squad en masse, which Lam says limited his ability to evolve his squad.
“At the time it was the right decision,” Lam said. “But looking back now, you say that’s not actually what we should have done. So we are now coming out of that now in the sense this is the last year of those bilateral contracts. We are excited by next year certainly and the team we are looking to rebuild with the salary cap going back.”
Lam’s other great frustration is that clubs can only recruit players for their academies within preset geographical boundaries which he believes inhibits Bristol. “If you look at the U18s and U20s I keep being told that you guys have got this region and that region,” Lam said. “I reply saying we don’t need land. If you look at a map of where elite players come from and all the schools that have the best rugby programmes, we have one [school]. All the others are in London and the Midlands so those clubs have a huge amount of talent to choose from.”
This is likely to be addressed in the new Professional Game Partnership between Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Players’ Association with the introduction of a draft system.
Still it is hard to reconcile Lam’s complaints with the fact that Bristol are one of the highest spenders within the salary cap as well as boasting the biggest stadium and best training facilities in the Premiership.
There is a lot to admire about Lam, whose father rose from kitchen hand to one of New Zealand’s top pastry chefs. His bravery as a player is the stuff of legend and winning the PRO12 with Connacht in 2016 is one of the great Cinderella stories. Yet there is no middle ground with Lam: it is his way or the highway.
Lam has a tactical template that details what every player is needed to do from minute one to 80. When Bristol lose, it is invariably because the players did not follow the “system”.
Several players have left under a cloud including highly rated second row Alex Groves to Sale and scrum-half Andy Uren to Treviso in the same season that he signed a three-year contract. There are further murmurings of discontent in the dressing room and England prop Kyle Sinckler is likely to depart at the end of the season.
Yet Lam is adamant that his original vision of Premiership titles and further European glory can still be accomplished following the Covid induced hiatus. “The expectation went up during the first three years and then we had a hit once Covid came in for all the reasons that I have talked about,” Lam said. “Now we want to win trophies and everything we are working towards is based on that.”
The board, he insists, are in lock step with his rationale. However a defeat by fellow strugglers Gloucester would all but end their play-off ambitions for another season and Lam will know that billionaires like Steve Lansdown tend not to be the most patient of individuals. Just ask Pearson.