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Will Carpenter

Will Carpenter writes

Posted Wednesday, December 9th 2020

Pat Lam and the Heineken Champions Cup

Pat Lam is a Champions Cup romantic and he’s not afraid to admit it.

The Bears Director of Rugby, a winner of the coveted trophy as a player with Northampton Saints in 2000, will rekindle his relationship with a competition he regards as ‘the ultimate’ when French giants ASM Clermont Auvergne visit Ashton Gate this weekend.

For Bristol, it ends a 12-year absence from Europe’s top table. For the club’s supporters, who have suffered many long nights of the soul, it represents a lofty milestone of progress – three years ago, the club was preparing to face Leinster ‘A’ in the British & Irish Cup. The tragedy here, will be their absence on Saturday.

For Lam, the Champions Cup has been in the Bears’ blueprint from day one, but their mere presence in the competition is far from the final destination – the occasion though, is one to relish.

“I didn’t really know much about the European Cup till I came over here in 1997 when I was playing for Newcastle in the Championship, so we were trying to get promoted,” said Lam. 

“We got promoted but the boycott happened, and I ended up at Northampton after that and we soon realised that this is the ultimate and that it’s the closest thing in club rugby to Test rugby. 

“You are playing teams you don’t normally face, and it’s probably influenced me in my coaching because when I came back to the Northern Hemisphere with Connacht, the ambition was about being the best Irish team, but my eyes were set on the Champions Cup.

Pat Lam lifts the Heineken Cup at Twickenham in May 2000 after a 9-7 victory over Munster.

“We set out as part of our vision that we wanted to be a Heineken Champions Cup team and then when I came to Bristol it was the same thing. There was talk about just getting into the Premiership, but I said no. It was the wrong thinking – I wanted the club to be a Champions Cup side. 

“That’s the ambition and the realistic goal we set and everything we do daily and the standards we set are geared towards that because it is the ultimate competition to win.” 

Lam’s Heineken Cup triumph came on a wet and stormy afternoon at Twickenham in May 2000, as three Paul Grayson penalties saw Northampton, captained by the Bears boss, edge out Munster 9-7. Only Leo Cullen, the Leinster captain turned Director of Rugby, has lifted the prestigious trophy as both a player and (head) coach. 

The 52-year-old labelled the Bears’ 2019/20 Challenge Cup win as ‘a moment of inspiration’, a stepping-stone – he knows the ultimate test begins at Ashton Gate on Saturday.

“It’s been a long time since Bristol have been a part of the Champions Cup. It’s in our vision, it’s in our dream to be a team that consistently, year on year and forever, contests the Champions Cup. That’s what we want to be. These are the sort of games you want, because they grow you as a club, grow you as players and give you really good recognition to be a part of big-time rugby. That’s what all players, coaches and staff thrive on. There’s huge excitement and we want to make sure that we’re at our best when we start.

Lam and chairman Chris Booy with the European Challenge Cup (JMPUK).

“Winning the Challenge Cup was good recognition for the work that everyone has done, and it just again highlights and gives everyone an understanding that if you do the work, and we work together and we grow on and off the field, you’ll get the rewards - and it’s only a moment of inspiration.

“We talk about our visions around inspiring our rugby community to bring rugby success. So, that trophy gave huge inspiration to Bristolians and people in our community all around the world, but as we keep saying to the players when we came back, it’s just a moment. It’s now in the history books, which we can enjoy, but now it’s all about getting more and more of those moments - whether that’s trophies, visiting kids, old people’s homes, hospitals [and] so forth. That's the club we want to be and what we are, but now we want more, and it certainly helps guys understand the process. To get that trophy, it took hard work, and if we want more, it requires more hard work.”

A new competition format, due to the impact of coronavirus and for this season only, provides a fresh spin on Europe’s highest honour, with fewer fixtures and two larger pools of 12, made up of eight clubs from the Gallagher Premiership, Pro 14 and Top 14. In Lam’s opinion, the temporary format leaves teams with no second chances.

“It’s intriguing, it’s exciting. It’s like you’re going into finals rugby straight away because looking at it, with only four out of 12 strong teams in each pool going through to the quarter finals, I would say, if you lose a game in the pool stages, in these four rounds, it’s very unlikely that you’re going to make it through, whereas previously you could.

“So, it just forces you to be at your best right from round one, otherwise your chances of winning it are gone.”

For the Bears, that means hitting their straps from the first whistle against a Clermont side steeped in European history and pedigree – and Lam says their opening clash ‘will give a good marker of where we are and how far we’ve come as a club’.

“It’s a tough start. They’re going really well in the Top 14 and there are a lot of world class players - I coached some of them in the Barbarians, so I know the quality. That is a tough start but it’s also an exciting one.

“We know, or we talk about the fact that Clermont are a Champions Cup team. They’ve got to the finals and it’s their big dream to win it. But they’re there consistently and to play against them is a good marker of where we are and how far we’ve come as a club.”

After a 12-year wait for Champions Cup rugby in Bristol, the Covid-19 pandemic and the city’s current tier three status has denied the Ashton Gate faithful the most memorable of occasions. It’s a frustration for Lam, his players and the thousands of enchanted Bristolians who have joined the Bears on their journey of resurgence. But the Director of Rugby knows the good times will soon return.

“I would definitely say with Clermont here, we would have had a sell-out crowd and that’s because the fans are loving what the team are doing, on and off the field. They love the sort of rugby that we’re playing, and they haven’t had Champions Cup rugby for many years.

“It’s such a shame, but when the time comes, they’ll be back. They’ll be flooding back in numbers, and we’re looking forward to that day.”

Lam and the Bears will be hoping that day is a Champions Cup quarter final.


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