Dave Ward Interview: 'We're all aligned together and I think only club and country can benefit from that'

Bristol Bears Women's head coach Dave Ward feels his Welsh stars can only move forward from World Cup experience
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Next month, Bristol Bears begin their Allianz Premier 15s campaign.

In his first season in charge, Dave Ward guided the West Country outfit to third place and a spot in the semi-finals, which represented a huge step forward for the club after finishing eighth the previous year.

The initial signs for further progression in 2022-23 look positive for the Bears after winning both of their Allianz Cup games so far - including an eye-catching 66-33 victory away at Saracens - but the collective performances of their international stars at the World Cup are adding to the sense of excitement and optimism around Bristol.

While England are the bookmakers' favourites to depart New Zealand as world champions - with Abbie Ward, Sarah Bern and new signing Lark Davies flying the flag for the Bears on the other side of the global - the Welsh contingent at the tournament are also grabbing the headlines.

"I think that was the match I was looking forward to the most," Bristol head coach Ward says. "Alisha [Butchers] scored, Kayleigh [Powell] scored, Snowy [Elinor Snowsill] with the kicks and Keria [Bevan] to finish off. She has been ready for those big moments for a long time."

Ward is of course referring to Wales' dramatic 18-15 triumph over Scotland in their World Cup opener in which Bears scrum-half, the aforementioned Bevan, slotted a last-gasp penalty to snatch the win. Bristol had six players involved in Sunday's success and seven of their roster boarded the plane to New Zealand.

That number has unfortunately been reduced this week after Butchers sustained a serious knee injury in the narrow victory, with Ward full of sympathy for one of Wales' top performers in 2022: "Alisha, she texted me and she was her usual upbeat self," he adds. "She has probably been one of the form players in the world in the last year. She got voted Wales' Player of the Six Nations, she was in the Team of the Season for the Premiership and she went into the World Cup full of confidence, scoring the first try. It is hugely disappointing, but she is young, she will bounce back. We are incredibly proud of what she has achieved already."

In total, Ward has 11 players who qualify for Wales at his disposal and seven were awarded professional contracts by the WRU earlier this year. The decision to introduce full-time deals has only lifted the high standards which Bristol judge themselves on.

"I think you have seen it reflected in their [the players] performances," continues Ward. "The girls aren't now coming back off an eight-hour shift. They are coming back from a recovery session or a skill session with Wales, coming to the club and full of energy. Instead of going into team meetings sleeping, they are going downstairs and playing Spikeball! I think that is just the mindset shift in terms of where they are and how they want to improve.

"It [when they received their contracts] was great because they realised they would have more time for this, this and this but you have more time to analyse, my expectations of them went up and their expectations of each other are going to go up.

"I suppose the two programmes [at Bristol and Wales] bounce off each other. I had a really good chat with Ioan [Cunningham - Wales's head coach] in the summer about where he sees the girls and where their progressions are so we can align their individual development plans. Getting over the line against Scotland was a big hurdle and a big tick for the Welsh governing body to the commitment they have made to the girls and we can't go back from that now. We are actually all aligned together and I think only club and country can benefit from that."

Ward alludes to the fact Bristol's Welsh contingent are now experiencing 'high-performance environments' across the board and that symmetry is only helping his players, and the club, raise the bar.

Narrowing the focus slightly, and the integration of Bristol Bears' men's and women's teams is also aiding development with Wales fly-half Snowsill one of the many to thrive from the relationship. 

Eighteen months ago, the 33-year-old was told by one of her coaches that he didn't think she would make it to the World Cup. The thought of retirement entered the mind of Snowsill, but the Bears No.10 recently admitted a conversation with Ward persuaded her to go back into pre-season training.

Fast-forward to last weekend and 'Snowy' lined up for Wales at her fourth World Cup and picked up the Player of the Match award after their win over Scotland.

"I think about the conversation between myself and Snowy," Wards tells TRU. "She was questioning a few things about rugby. Obviously, she had been through a really disappointing patch through Wales and also probably with Bristol as well. I just said 'let's get you back to enjoying rugby again, let's worry about everything else after that.'

"I think lucky for us, we came and we moved to the High Performance Centre. Our integration with the men became more normalised and I think that was a huge turning point. The way she went on to play for us in those first five games last season and throughout the season and also that recognition that she can still improve is all great.

"For her to get that Player of the Match award, I was incredibly proud of her but also really happy for her. She has worked incredibly hard and I don't think anyone would doubt that. For us as a club, we are proud to have those players associated with us."

The aspirations of Ward's players are matched by his hunger to excel as a coach. The former Harlequins star admits he watched five of the opening six World Cup matches and even showed certain parts of Italy's 22-10 win over the USA to his Bristol squad earlier this week.

"I didn't quite make the France/South Africa game but the other five were excellent," laughs Ward. "I have been showing the girls some clips. We showed them some of the USA/Italy game. We watched the USA and their red zone accuracy in terms of the shapes they were running and we referenced our own. 

"I watch every game I can because as a coach you are always learning. You never stop learning and everyone knows that coaching is stealing the best ideas and adopting them.

"I went into England camp. Eddie Jones kindly invited me in a couple of years ago. I saw the warm-up there and guess what? That is now a part of my warm-up because I really liked it, I adapted it and I felt like the reasoning behind it was exactly what I want for my team moving forward. 

"The environment I am in at the moment, learning off Pat is a huge benefit to me but obviously Dave Alred has now come in. He has changed the perspective in the coaching office so it is an incredible place to be not only for us as a squad, but for me as a coach."

Whether Ward will go six from six when it comes to watching the World Cup games this weekend remains to be seen, but he highlights France against England [two of the favourites for the tournament] as the standout fixture whilst he will also be keeping a close eye on Wales who take on the host nation and world champions New Zealand in the early hours of Sunday morning.

However, club duties will be at the forefront of his mind as Bristol's Allianz Cup campaign resumes this Saturday with a trip to Loughborough Lightning.

Two wins from two without their internationals is extremely pleasing for Ward and he hopes that the feel-good factor that is being generated in the West Country - and on the other side of the world - can be harnessed as the Bears look to continue moving in the right direction.

"It is going to be a hugely competitive season," Ward says. "Everyone is going to be buzzing off the back of the World Cup. We made two semi-finals last year. The challenge for us is to go two steps further; To make the final of the cup, to make the final of the Prem. 

"I think one of the biggest positives for us is although we have lost 10 players, those 10 players were pretty much all with us last season apart from Lark and Gwen [Pyrs]. The likes of Abbie [Ward], Sarah [Bern] coming back and the Wales girls, they know our structures, they know the way we are going to play and hopefully they are going to come back and fit seamlessly in and pick up momentum where the cup girls are leaving us at the moment.

"Our cup squad is a pretty impressive squad as it is. That looks like it will be the squad for the first couple of league games anyway and I am really happy and confident going into those first two league games that we have got a squad that can do the job and start the league campaign on the right foot."