|Gallagher Premiership Rugby|
|Dates: 31 August – 1 June Coverage: Commentary on BBC Radio 5 live, sports extra and local radio on the BBC Sport website, mobile, tablet and app. Reports on all matches and live text commentary on selected games.|
Not every head coach begins their reign by tasking the players with designing a team handshake and then inviting all of his new neighbours round for afternoon tea with the family.
But then not every head coach shares former school teacher Pat Lam’s passion for teamwork, community spirit and hopes of creating a “20-year” legacy.
Having secured an immediate return to the top tier last term, Lam’s Bristol Bears host West Country rivals Bath on Friday as the new Premiership campaign gets under way at Ashton Gate in front of an anticipated crowd of 25,000.
Yet, with four previous relegations to their name, no side has dropped down from the top flight more times than Bristol in the Premiership era – and bookmakers are tipping them to once again be fighting to survive this term.
“I understand why people are making those assumptions and we deserve them because of our history, particularly in the past few years, but your vision tells you where you are headed,” Lam told BBC Sport.
“I keep hearing about survival, but the ultimate to me is to be in the European Champions Cup. Our focus is on our vision to go forward.”
And that vision is clear and threefold: To be playing Champions Cup rugby, with Bristolians in their XV and players representing England.
But can the 49-year-old from Auckland who coached Irish minnows Connacht to silverware do it again – over time – with perennial underachievers Bristol?
A plan to become ‘firmly established’ in Europe
“It is a formula I have used before. I did exactly the same when I was at Connacht, with the same three objectives,” recalled Lam. “People laughed when we targeted Champions Cup rugby, but we got there.
“There were no Ireland internationals there when I arrived and there were 13 by the time I left, while 33% of our squad had come through locally.”
After leading Connacht to victory in their first Pro12 final in 2016, Lam agreed to take on the Bears role from the end of the following season, while the English side were enduring a torrid top-flight campaign in which they would win just three league games.
Now the New Zealand-born former Samoa international wants Bristol to follow the example of current Premiership champions Saracens by changing their fortunes over a two-decade period.
“If you had said 20 years ago that Saracens would dominate, people would have laughed at you,” he continued. “They are an example. Ultimately I believe it is because they got their vision sorted.
“So while people might laugh at us now, in 20 years’ time I want them to look back and think of Bristol Bears as being firmly established in Europe.”
‘I do not want people to come here for the money’
Lam, who enjoyed European success with Northampton Saints as a player in 2000, also wants Bristol to be known for bringing through England internationals.
“Every rugby player dreams of playing international rugby,” he added. “Bristol is part of English rugby so it is vital that we are aligned to the RFU [Rugby Football Union] and that we have a pathway.”
England boss Eddie Jones visited Ashton Gate in 2017 to meet with Lam to discuss that pathway, while the national team’s forwards coach Steve Borthwick has also observed training.
Nevertheless, Bristol’s headline arrivals this summer include All Blacks Charles Piutau and John Afoa, plus fellow New Zealander, flanker Jake Heenan.
Backed by billionaire owner Steve Lansdown, the club will be reportedly making Piutau the Premiership’s highest-paid player having signed the former Pro12 Player of the Year from Ulster.
But Lam, whose side will hope to avoid becoming the fifth team in seven years to go straight back down after promotion, insists he does “not want people to come here for the money”.
“I want them to come here because they believe in the vision, so they don’t get any surprises when we are going in to schools and visiting old people in the community,” he explained.
“Every single player that has come in I was able to sit down with and have a chat about our vision, and they committed here because of it.”
‘Our handshake is like a chain, connecting us’
With more than 20 new players arriving prior to the new campaign, getting them all to gel as a team will be one of father-of-five Lam’s biggest challenges.
And while team unity and team spirit is often spoken like a mere buzzword by other head coaches, Lam evidently places great emphasis upon it – when meeting him, he takes the time to personally introduce you to every single member of his coaching staff.
Then, sitting back in the chair in his office overlooking the Bears’ training base at Clifton Rugby club on the outskirts of Bristol, with books on leadership by American author John Maxwell on his shelf, he speaks intensely about his belief in teamwork.
“I’ve been very fortunate to be part of some very successful teams but absolutely blessed to be in some horrific teams,” he said.
“We have to connect every day. So I asked a couple of guys to come up with a handshake for the team, the staff and the players.
“It is like a chain, connecting us, and we become strong, checking everyone is all right or going for a coffee.
“When I first arrived, I did a presentation about who I am and what is important to me: My family, my wife and my children.
“Then I asked everyone else to do a PowerPoint about what is important to them too – you find the guys did not know things about each other.
“If people enter my programme and leave it as a better player and person, then I will sleep well at night.”
As well as inspiring his players, Lam wants to inspire Bristolians, something that became clear when he was convinced to take the job in 2016 after Lansdown and his wife flew to meet with Lam and his wife.
“I knew that football is more Steve’s game, but it was clear then that his first love is Bristolians,” said the former Auckland and Blues Super Rugby head coach. “All I could hear through that conversation was ‘community’.
“It is always about more than the game. We want to inspire our community through rugby success. We need to know, when the going gets tough, why we are digging deep.”
And Lam acts upon his words about community, be it through frequent school visits, talks at assemblies or his willingness to engage with his nearby residents.
Bristol fans will hope their team can steer clear of relegation this term, avoiding a repeat of their relatively disastrous display – before Lam’s arrival – two seasons ago.
Having finished 13 points adrift of 11th-placed Worcester Warriors and 32 points off the Champions Cup qualification spots, a contrasting campaign is much-needed.
So after 22 bruising rounds of the 2018-19 season, will Lam’s men have delivered stage one of his 20-year plan?