Season Review: Bristol Bears
Returning to Gallagher Premiership Rugby after a year in the second division is far from an easy task, but Bristol Bears certainly took the challenge in their stride.
The 2018/19campaign was certainly one to remember as Pat Lam’s side comfortably rode to a ninth-place finish in their first season back in the top-flight, achieving some incredible feats along the way.
With the dust now settled on the season, here’s our look back at all the highs and lows of the Bears return to the top flight.
Bristol’s first season back in the Premiership has certainly been one to remember, with Lam’s side finishing ninth in the table, a comfortable 20 points clear of relegation and just five points shy of qualifying for the Heineken Champions Cup.
It was a year of highs and lows for the Bears, but Lam will be satisfied with his side’s record of nine wins, one draw and 12 losses.
Ahead of the campaign, the club bolstered their ranks with a host of new signings including All Blacks full back Charles Piutau from Ulster, former All Blacks prop John Afoa from Gloucester Rugby and hooker Harry Thacker from Leicester Tigers.
🐾 Dare to play, a philosophy @BristolBears have embraced from minute one 🐾
Sweeping try after sweeping try, the #GallagherPrem cottoned on to how dangerous Bears can be 🐻
Big names arriving and youngsters with plenty of experience 😎
Was this the start of something great?✨ pic.twitter.com/dpE1ZdJsG4
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) June 5, 2019
The Bears got their return season off to the perfect start with home victory against Bath, but the realities of competing in the top division began to kick in when they fell to defeat against to Saracens, Gloucester and Northampton Saints within their opening five fixtures.
There were plenty of positives to take, however, beating the likes of Leicester Tigers and Saracens at Ashton Gate either side of a narrow 31-29 defeat to finalists Exeter.
Lam’s side also enjoyed European success, securing their place in the quarter-finals in the European Challenge Cup for the first time in 12 years where they were beaten by French side La Rochelle.
All eyes were on Bristol on the first weekend in April with the return of the Clash, but the Bears were unable to replicate their blockbuster beginning as they lost 26-19 to rivals Bath.
It was a pulsating end to the season, drawing 20-20 against Sale Sharks, with a thrilling final few minutes seeing two missed penalties from both teams, before a 19-12 triumph against the relegated Falcons on the final day secured their ninth-placed finish.
While Bristol’s first season back in the Gallagher Premiership was not always the smoothest of rides, the Bears’ fans were certainly given plenty of opportunities to cheer at their home ground.
And no performance was more pleasing than the opening one, with Bristol Bears getting their Premiership return off to the perfect start with a thrilling 17-10 win over fierce rivals Bath Rugby in front of a capacity crows of 26,079 at Ashton Gate.
Irish international fly-half Ian Madigan steered Bristol towards victory with four penalties, but it was Alapati Leiua who won the match with a 73rd-minute try that secured a night to remember for the Bears faithful.
Just three weeks later, another masterful kicking display from Madigan secured a second successive home victory for Bristol as they edged out Harlequins at a rain-soaked Ashton Gate.
Two first-half penalties from Madigan’s right boot cancelled out Danny Care’s early opener to inspire a Bristol comeback, claiming a 20-13 victory over the London side after falling 10-0 down.
Few fans expect to do the double over one of the league’s greatest-ever sides on their return to the top division, but the Bears managed to achieve the feat against the legendary Leicester Tigers.
Harry Thacker’s first-half brace led Bristol to a scintillating 41-10 victory over Leicester Tigers at Ashton Gate, before haunting his former club again in the away fixture with a pivotal late try which saw the Bears run out 23-20 winners.
But the real stand-out has to be the win over Saracens.
Only six teams all season managed to beat the men in black and Bristol were one of them, again thanks to a late Madigan penalty that did the damage.
There have been many exceptional performers who played a key role in Bristol’s impressive Premiership return, one of those being lock Chris Vui.
The Samoa captain had a stellar campaign with the West-country side, recording 176 carries and 190 tackles to help Bristol cope with the physicality of the Gallagher Premiership from the middle of the pack.
Another player instrumental to Bristol’s successful first season was Steven Luatua. The All Black forward was directly involved in 22 clean breaks, made 207 tackles and 177 carries and with that kind of record, there’s no surprise he was nominated for Gallagher Premiership Player of the Season.
A shoulder injury ruled Luke Morahan out of the final four rounds of the season, but the Australian wing had certainly made his impact before then, topping the side’s league metre charts with an impressive 987 covered in just 16 games.
There was a lot of expectation on Charles Piutau at the start of the season and even though his season was hit with injury, the full-back still managed to deliver.
In just 11 Gallagher Premiership appearances, Piutau crossed for six tries to make him the club’s joint second highest try scorer in the league, but more impressively, he beat 55 defenders in those outings – 10 more than the club’s next highest.
New signing Harry Thacker quickly became a fans’ favourite at Ashton Gate after a remarkable debut season which saw him top the charts in three categories.
The hooker, who joined Bristol from Leicester last summer, was the club’s joint leading try scorer with seven, alongside Leiua, including a brace against his former club.
He also topped the charts with 224 carries and 227 tackles in 21 league appearances
Dan Thomas, who joined Bristol from West Country rivals Gloucester ahead of the 2017/18 season, also enjoyed a breakthrough season as he became a permanent fixture in the side, even scoring a try against his former club after just 82 seconds back in March.
Who’s in for 2019/20?
Pat Lam has confirmed his playing squad ahead of the 2019/20 Gallagher Premiership campaign, reducing numbers from 47 to 42 first team players.
The club has already revealed the signings of England internationals Dave Attwood and Nathan Hughes to bolster their pack ahead of their second Gallagher Premiership season, while Jordan Lay will return to Bristol Bears on a one-year deal.
Meanwhile, young Bristolians George Kloska, Blake Boyland, Jack Bates – along with Clifton College star Ioan Llloyd – will join the integrated Bears Academy for the first time.
Who’s out for 2019/20?
Ten players left Bristol Bears at the end of the 2018/19 campaign, including flanker Jack Lam after five seasons with the club.
Jack Tovey, Nick Haining, Tusi Pisi, Nick Fenton-Wells, Joe Latta, Sione Faletau, Reiss Cullen and Ehize Ehizode also left the West Country for pastures new.
Former Australia captain George Smith confirmed he would be among the players leaving earlier this month, announcing his retirement following the completion of his short-term contract at Bristol.