Bears' Lam bullish as Premiership prepares for return
The coronavirus pandemic has posed enormous challenges for clubs and leagues worldwide but for high-flying English Premiership side Bristol Bears it has been a "wonderful opportunity", director of rugby Pat Lam has told AFP.
The 51-year-old Samoan rugby great and his third-placed side will resume a Premiership campaign interrupted in mid-March when they play already-relegated Saracens at home on Saturday.
The Bristol squad have every reason to have an extra pep in their step as they can dream of winning their first Premiership title.
They enter the final nine matches of the resumed league season bolstered by two high-profile buys -- Fijian star Semi Radradra and England prop Kyle Sinckler.
Bristol's first aim is to finish in the top four to qualify for the play-offs.
Lam, who has been in his present role since 2017, said he treated COVID-19 no differently to how he confronted other obstacles in life.
"Life is full of challenges. Like on the field (when) you have a big guy running hard at you, is it fight or flight?" he told AFP in an interview at the team's High Performance Centre.
"Do you complain or moan or get on with things?
"I saw COVID as a wonderful opportunity."
Lam, who played in three World Cups, reaching the 1991 and 1995 quarter-finals, said lockdown gave the players a very different challenge to their usual squad training regime.
"Here we talk about ownership, you have to own your development, own your living," said the former No8.
"Everyone talks about players being spoonfed but they suddenly had to do things on their own even if we gave them a programme to follow."
Lam says the gradual stepping up of training evolving from small groups of six into larger ones of 20 has been helpful too as it has given more time for one-on-one coaching.
- 'Bums on seats' -
CEO and former fly-half Mark Tainton -- who is the club's record points scorer -- says there is pressure on the players but he calls it "good pressure".
"We are very excited and we are very ambitious to achieve what we can this year," he told AFP.
"We have built up a coaching team and a squad capable of winning trophies soon, and why not this year?
"Before the lockdown we had won five on the trot which is a club record.
"We have to hit the ground running and build up a few wins as who knows where we will be if a second wave (of coronavirus) comes."
The Premiership's resumption will, like all other sports, take place behind closed doors -- which means both a lack of atmosphere and a substantial hit to club revenues.
Tainton said the players had been given an insight as to what it would be like when the game kicks off at the 27,000-capacity Ashton Gate Stadium on Saturday.
"We have prepared the players for such an atmosphere by getting them to train in the stadium to get them used to no noise," he said.
However, it is harder to budget for the future with no matchday revenue.
"We cannot survive on TV revenue and central funding," said Tainton.
"It is bums on seats that we rely on and it was going really, really well pre-COVID.
"We had amongst the highest average crowds and our hospitality was doing really well.
"It leaves a big hole in the funding."
However, another upside is the Bears have just started training at their new state-of-the-art High Performance Centre just outside Bristol.
When private equity firm CVC took a substantial stake in the Premiership in 2018, each club received a £10.4 million ($13.5 million) payment.
Bristol's owner, locally-born self-made billionaire Steve Lansdown, who made his fortune in financial services, chose to use that payment to create the new training facility.
There are two full-sized outdoor training pitches, one of which is called "Lansdown", which as Lam wryly observes appropriately overlooks the rest of the complex.
"They could have put all the money into players which would have been short-term investment but this is a statement we are here for the long term," Lam said.