‘The goal is to win' - Pat Lam and Ellis Genge ahead of new Premiership season

Pat Lam's Bristol Bears finished 10th in the Gallagher Premiership last season

From finishing first in 2020 to finishing 10th last year, there has certainly been a contrast in Bristol Bears’ past two seasons.

Working out exactly what led to their quite dramatic fall from grace is a challenge. Not too long before the start of the 2021-22 campaign, it was announced that their Director of Rugby Pat Lam had signed a contract extension which would see him call the city home until at least 2028, whilst the playing group was stacked with many of the same world-class faces.

On the whole, ahead of this term, you have to say that Bristol haven’t lost all that many key players. John Afoa’s departure to Vannes maybe the most significant loss, but bringing in Leicester Tigers captain Ellis Genge as well as Scotland’s Magnus Bradbury and Sale's AJ MacGinty means there has certainly been quality and depth added to the group.

Lump in the recruitment of Gabriel Ibitoye from Tel Aviv Heat, plus a clutch of the highest performers that both the Championship and BUCS Super Rugby has to offer, and you are reasonably impressed by what Lam’s side could produce.

“If I judge it on the work we have done, if I judge it on the changes we have made, if I judge it on the feedback from everybody, we are on track,” Lam said, ahead of Bristol's Premiership opener against Bath on Friday night. “As I said last year, we were disappointed with where we finished, but it was also quite good in a way to give a reset.”

Since their promotion back to the Premiership under Lam in 2018, it had been a tale of consistent and constant improvement. Going from ninth, to third, to a Challenge Cup win, to top of the pile, it is clear that the Bears have all the keys to success at their feet and they will be keen to put last year behind them.

This includes their state-of-the-art training facility as well as their talent on pitch. More than anything else, Lam seems happy with the competition in his squad. He even said: “I imagine our supporters are trying to work out which one is going to play”, indicating how pleased he is with the level at which all of his players are being pushed by one another.

As ever, the former Samoa international doesn’t shy away from what he wants to achieve in the season to come.

“The goal is to win,” Lam said. “Like every team in the competition, but there is the process to get there. You have got to make the top four, and to get there you have got to be consistent, and we weren’t consistent at all last year.

“We were the year before. We know how to do it. There was probably a few things we let slip, just some basics and we have gone back, readdressed that and continued to build.”

Winning just eight games last season was something of a contrast to eventual champions, Leicester Tigers. Mid-season, it was announced that Genge would be making his way back to the club where he started his career, some seven years since he left for the East Midlands.

In that time, the prop forward has gone from hot-headed bruiser to established international prop and captain of a Premiership team that lifted the Premiership trophy last June.

His unveiling, as you’d expect, came with a little bit of drama. In a social media video, Genge was seen embracing with Lam, a move described as ‘classless’ by a portion of Tigers fans.

Eventually conceding that the timing of the video was ‘wrong’, the 27-year-old has now been training with his new side for several weeks in preparation for the new season.

It was the understandable tug of home that helped the international rationalise his return to the city of his birth, with many hoping that Genge can bring some winning success with him to the West Country from the incumbent Premiership champions.

“I am not going to compare the two [Bristol and Leicester], it is different demographics,” Genge said. “I have had six or seven great years with Leicester, we finished on a high but now I am ready to really get into it with my new teammates.

"Last season they weren't great, were they, at all? I think they got some things right but a lot wrong. The beauty of it is, especially in sport and I think business alike, you're never that far off. You always think you're a million miles away but you're never that far off. 

"I think hopefully with a few changes, maybe a different perspective, a different approach on things that hopefully I can help influence that. But first off, I have to gain the trust and respect of everyone else in the environment and that's what I'm working on at the moment."

As much as Genge is returning to where his professional career began, for all intents and purposes, it is an entirely new club. With a new name, a brand new training base and a host of new faces, it will take a bit of time getting used to.

Bristol’s season starts with a game against their oldest rivals, Bath. Beneath the Friday night lights at Ashton Gate, it will be an occasion that Genge will be raring to go for, having not played in the fixture since he was a teenager.

“I would love to play,” he said. “I said outside to somebody that I haven’t played in a south-west derby since I was 15 or 16, and never as a professional athlete. It means a lot to me.

“I would always tune into Bristol-Bath games regardless of the what the occasion was, U18 or top-flight. I am really excited if I get given the opportunity to play.”