Pat Lam thrives in Bear pit: Bristol revival spurs on former Samoa international as he insists his side won’t slip out of Premiership
- Former Samoa international Pat Lam is loving life in Bristol
- The Bears head coach says his players feel like they ‘belong to this community’
- His team aren’t yet safe from relegation but Lam is adamant they won’t go down
In Pat Lam’s office at Clifton RFC – where Bristol Bears are based for now – on the wall next to the door are several small maps in a frame.
Two show the areas around Auckland, one the islands of Samoa, another North Harbour, next Christchurch, then Newcastle, Northampton, Galway and Bristol.
The piece was a gift for his 50th birthday last September – Lam’s life in locations.
Former Samoa international Pat Lam is loving life in Bristol as head coach of the Bears
The Bristol boss likes communities, having come from a typically large Samoan family, and two years into getting his paws dirty out West feels embedded in this one.
‘I’ve seen all the Banksy art-work!’ Lam smiles.
‘Stokes Croft is awesome. I even had a Caribbean meal! I like going there, speaking to people behind the counters.
‘The variety is huge in Bristol. It was voted recently as the best place to live in the UK based on opportunities, lifestyle, culture, arts.
‘Hopefully what we’re doing with Bristol City, Rovers and the Flyers is making sport a big part of that.
‘I get a lot of support from Bristolians around the world – that’s the impact we can have around the world.
PAT LAM FACTFILE
Born: Auckland, New Zealand
North Harbour: 1995-96
Newcastle: 1997-98; 2001-02
Samoa: 1991-99 New Zealand: 1992
Scotland (assistant): 2003
Pacific Islanders: 2006
Premiership – 1998
Heineken Cup – 2000
ITM Cup – 2005, 2007
Pro12 – 2016
‘With the team when I ask “who’s a Bristolian?” not many put their hand up, but when I ask “who feels they belong to this community,” mate, everyone puts their hand up.’ Some coaches would count the pound coins – 650,000-a-year for Lam – give the Premiership a pop and if they failed, pack it in.
But it seems this one, while attempting to awaken a sleeping rugby giant in Bristol who were out of the top-flight for eight of the last 10 seasons, is not just trying to build a rugby team, but another community.
Lam wants becoming a Bristol Bear to go from a job to a ‘calling’. He has called Bath’s Dave Attwood home for next season, and the club will help the lock become a barrister in town.
‘My culture is all about family,’ Lam tells Sportsmail.
‘But I think team sport is a family within a family.
‘In the old days before you got paid you always had the pride of your school, club, county, province, country.
‘Professionalism comes in and everyone moves around.
‘How am I going to get the feeling of playing for my team if I’m not originally from here? Easy. Get to know the people, what it means to these people.. I realised that when coaching Auckland.
‘Auckland and Canterbury – there’s not a lot of love lost – it’s like Manchester and Liverpool.
‘If a player from Canterbury came up to Auckland, I’d get them to meet people – they don’t see you as from Canterbury, but as an Auckland player.
‘Here they don’t see you’re from Samoa, Australia or London, they say “he plays for the Bears”.
‘If you bring that sense of belonging and purpose, you’ll get performances.’ That ‘Bears’ moniker – tagged onto the club’s name last June – was owner Steve Lansdown’s idea and sparked a ‘heated’ response from the fans Lam tried to bond with.
Bristol head coach says his diverse group of players feel like they ‘belong to this community’
But he sees it symbolising his whole message.
Lam has created mini packs in the squad who compete for points across social gatherings and rugby activities throughout the year.
Their names? Sun-bears, Kodiaks, Ewoks and… Camemberts.
‘We’ve got some characters!’ Lam smiles.
‘Not many people like change. You can learn from history, but vision drives you forward.
‘The spirit of the bear really sold me. It protects its own, its community, it’ll stand up and fight if it needs to, but also has that caring component, an intelligence.
‘I want the boys to be killers, fierce, aggressive when they’re on the field in the heat of the battle, but compassionate, caring when they’re visiting kids, in the hospitals, and at times in the game as it about going hard but being fair.
‘It encompassed everything we’re trying to do here.
‘People out of Minehead or Taunton, because of how rugby used to be they see Bristol as the city’s team.
‘Whereas kids can identify with the Bears – they see the Bears as bigger than just the city, it’s this whole area. People can call us Bristol Rugby, that’s fine. We know where we’re going.’ This ursine re-brand, their million-pound-a-season full-back, Charles Piutau, playing in the league’s biggest stadium, Ashton Gate, funded by billionaire baker Lansdown may make Bristol seem all glitz and glamour.
But Lam insists he is not playing ‘fantasy rugby’ – he would know, having coached the Barbarians to beat England 63-45 last summer.
Lam says: ‘The spirit of the bear really sold me. It protects its own, its community, it’ll stand up and fight if it needs to, but also has that caring component, an intelligence’
‘That’s what this could easily be,’ he says.
‘We could do it, but that’s not what this is about.
‘People think “Bristol have all this money”. Steve has the money, we don’t have all of Steve’s money. We have a salary cap and a security of our backer.
‘We can’t be reliant on a Charles Piutau, a Pat Lam or any individual – we’ve got to have a plan to be sustainable.
‘You look at Saracens 20 years ago, 15 years ago to Exeter – “who?”
‘That’s what we want, In 20 years’ time people to see Bristol as one of the premier clubs, one of the most successful teams in Europe, and they look back 20 years and say “they were rubbish!
‘What happened? Something changed.” We’re trying to be that change.
POINTS TO GO DOWN SINCE BONUS POINTS WERE INTRODUCED
2001: 12 (Rotherham)
2002: 28 (Leeds)
2003: 34 (Bristol)
2004: 3 (Rotherham)
2005: 38 (Harlequins)
2006: 27 (Leeds)
2007: 33 (Northampton)
2008: 12 (Leeds)
2009: 17 (Bristol)
2010: 28 (Worcester)
2011: 23 (Leeds)
2012: 32 (Newcastle)
2013: 23 (London Welsh)
2014: 16 (Worcester)
2015: 1 (London Welsh)
2016: 20 (London Irish)
2017: 20 (Bristol)
2018: 22 (London Irish)
‘People say “why don’t you get Faf de Klerk, or Francois Hougaard” I have a 21-year-old and a 23-year-old – both English, one Bristolian – Andy Uren and Harry Randall.
‘They’re not scrum-halves of the experience or the class of those other guys, but in five years when they are household names they’ll give us pride.
‘That’s what we want to be as Bristol, as the Bears, to bring these guys through. And take a bit of pain in the process.’ Reminded that he has snapped up two more expensive Test players, in Attwood and Nathan Hughes, for next season, Lam justifies the spending.
‘If I had all 23-year-old English players and Bristolians we’d probably still be in the Championship,’ he adds.
‘It’s getting the balance right. We set out a plan very clearly to be a Champions Cup team, that’s the vision, that’s the goal, that’s where those players are at and can bring the others through.’ All this change will seem futile if the Bears lose their grip around the Premiership tree. With four games left and Saracens at home on Saturday they are not safe from another relegation – but Lam is adamant Bristol’s claws are out for this fight.
‘We won’t slip down,’ he says.
‘We’ve had 11 years of Bristolians panicking at this time of the season. This is not an overnight fix – this is a five-year plan.
‘In the chaos people say “you’ve got to win this game,” mate, we’ve got to win every game.
‘The tighter you become with your mates, it’s for these pressure moments.
‘If you’re in a tricky situation who do you want with you?
‘Your closest friends, your family. That’s what it’s all about – under pressure we can count on people. If you don’t have relationships, it’s all superficial.
‘You can see the desperation and hunger for the team to do well. That’s what we’re working on building.’ If Bristol stay up, you feel Lam has it all mapped out.
Lam’s team are not yet safe from relegation but Lam is adamant that they will not go down
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