After nearly a decade in hibernation the Bears have returned to the top table of English rugby. Bristol were relegated to the Championship in 2009 and failed to fully return until 2018. The south-west side made a brief appearance in 2016 but failed to be competitive. Changes needed to be made. Their answer came in the form of Pat Lam. The former Samoan captain had just guided Irish underdogs, Connacht, to their first ever Pro 14 title against all odds. The question was whether he could do it all over again?
If there was one word to summarise Bristol's return, it was 'ambition'. In their first season, Bristol would look to run it from anywhere. The club had moved to a new stadium seating 27,000. It was the second largest stadium in the league. Their social media team challenged the status quo with unorthodox posts. Lastly, the club rebranded and adopted their new Bristol Bears franchise. "If you build it, he will come," were the words uttered by the actor Kevin Costner in the baseball blockbuster. Bristol built it, and in came the fans. On the very first game of the season they shocked their biggest rivals Bath with a win at home in front of a packed Ashton Gate under the Friday night lights.
With stability in place, Lam could put to use the deep pockets of owner Steve Lansdown. The financial services entrepreneur is the 152nd richest man in the UK. International stars began to flock to the club. The talismanic Pacific Islanders in Charles Piutau, Steven Luatua and Semi Radradra jetted in, Nathan Hughes was poached from Wasps and more recently they confirmed the signings of both England props, Kyle Sinckler and Ellis Genge. These stars were combined with 'Moneyball' signings from other clubs with players who were struggling to breakthrough into the first team.
Bristol topped the table in 2020/21 but failed to make the final after a miracle recovery from Harlequins which went to extra time. The Bears have been shellshocked ever since and have looked a shadow of themselves in the two seasons since with 10th and 9th place finishes. This season looks like last chance saloon for Lam to turn things around. Can he return them to the top again?