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Will Carpenter

Will Carpenter writes

Posted Saturday, January 20th 2018

#SignedUpSaturday - how Lam’s new recruits fit the mould

Pat Lam has spoken regularly about the significance of recruitment and retention, as he sets about building and developing a squad capable of competing at the top table of European rugby.

And while the rugby rumour-mill continues to turn, the essence of recruiting remains the same for the Bristol Rugby head coach – how does the player fit into the club’s vision?

‘Inspiring our community through rugby success’ was the vision laid out by Lam at the beginning of his reign in BS3, with the head coach also setting his sights on becoming a Champion’s Cup side; developing players capable of representing England; and expanding the squad’s Bristolian representation.

So how do these nine new recruits, revealed on #SignedUpSaturday, fit Lam’s blueprint for Bristol Rugby?

To become a Champions Cup side, you need Champions Cup know-how, not only to compete at that level, but also to educate younger players on the standards, requirements and sacrifice required to reach those heights.

John Afoa (JMP UK).
Shaun Malton (JMP UK).

This is where 32-cap All Black, John Afoa; Aviva Premiership winner, Shaun Malton; Pro12 winners, Aly Muldowney and Jake Heenan; and former Melbourne Rebels captain, Nic Stirzaker, fit the bill.

"We want guys who fit into our five-year plan and who will improve young Bristolians in the academy,” said Lam, of his recruitment process. And who better to teach the club’s young props than World Cup winner, Afoa.

“John Afoa is one of the best front rowers in the Premiership, added Lam. “I’m absolutely delighted to bring in someone of his experience. He will be massive on and off the field here, for all of our young players coming through – and also the older players.”

Another attractive attribute is Afoa’s durability, with the 34-year-old making 20 starts in 2015/16, 21 starts in 2016/17 and 13 starts already in 2017/18.

Aly Muldowney lifted the Pro12 title alongside Lam at Connacht - where he was also named Connacht’s ‘Team Man of the Year’ in 2014/15 - and the head coach says the 34-year-old will be a superb addition to the squad.

“We’ve worked together before and won a Championship at Connacht,” he said. ‘He’s played more than 50 games in the Premiership for Exeter in the past. He’s the perfect tight five forward to come in here and make a difference on and off the field.”

“John Afoa is one of the best front rowers in the Premiership. I’m absolutely delighted to bring in someone of his experience."

Head coach, Pat Lam

In Shaun Malton, Lam knows he has a ‘tough’ player with Premiership-winning pedigree and an explosive skill-set.

“He was a champion with Exeter and will have that mind set coming out of a very good environment,” said Lam.

“Not only is he extremely good in the core parts of his game – lineouts and scrummaging – but he’s also explosive and will suit the type of rugby that we play.”

The forthcoming departure of Rhodri Williams to Dragons opened up a slot for an experienced number nine – one that will be filled by the youngest player to reach 50 caps for Melbourne Rebels, and someone who last year featured for the Barbarians, alongside Steven Luatua.

Rebels’ 2017 captain, Nic Stirzaker was described as having the best pass in Australia by former Wallabies halfback and 1991 World Cup-winning captain, Nick Farr-Jones – and Lam believes the 25-year-old is the perfect fit at Bristol.

“Fast, dynamic, he’s another player we looked at closely because he suits the game we have and the way we want to play,” he said. “The biggest thing that Nic will bring will be the dynamism, the athleticism and the speed.”

Another familiar face for Lam is former All Blacks U20 captain, Jake Heenan, who he worked with at Connacht and at the Blues Academy – and the head coach was quick to praise his qualities on and off the field.

“Jake is a rugged, tough, openside flanker, who can play across the back row, very much in the McCaw mould and will bring great competition,” he said.

“But everyone knows about our work in the community, and Jake did tremendous work during his time in Ireland. It’s an area he’s extremely passionate about and it just made sense that he came here.”

Harry Thacker (JMP UK).
Yann Thomas (JMP UK).

Lam has also set out to create a pathway for Bristol players to develop into England internationals – and perhaps Signed-Up Saturday’s most exciting announcement, looks to already be on that road.

At just 23-years-old, Harry Thacker’s best years are still to come, and Lam said the ‘dynamo’ hooker has hordes of international potential.

 “We want a pathway where players can come through and play for England,” he said.

“Harry Thacker is an absolute dynamo in the way that he plays and hopefully we can continue to develop his game so he can go on and put the white jersey on for England, as well as enjoying and being very successful in a Bristol jersey.”

The front row has been an area targeted by Lam in his recruitment, with headline arrival John Afoa joined by Samoan international, Jordan Lay and former Gloucester prop, Yann Thomas. A young, international and an experienced Bristolian tick two boxes in Lam’s vision, as well as bolstering his scrummaging ranks.

“Jordan Lay is 25-years-old and playing international rugby, so to have someone at that age with that experience to come in and make a difference in our front row, is going to be huge,” said Lam.

“Harry Thacker is an absolute dynamo in the way that he plays and hopefully we can continue to develop his game, so he can go on and put the white jersey on for England."

Head coach, Pat Lam

“Yann is a Bristolian, who has played 111 games for Gloucester. He’s a loosehead prop who can cover tighthead, he’s played regularly with John Afoa, so he’s a great asset for us.”

Billy Searle's decision to not sign a new contract has created an opening at fly half in Lam’s squad for the 2018/19 campaign, but the club have moved quickly to fill the void with one of the GKIPA Championship’s leading performers.

Nottingham’s Tiff Eden – formerly of Worcester Warriors – has already amassed 125 league points this season, forging a reputation as a deadly operator from the kicking tee, but also as an exciting young talent.

“Once we signed Ian Madigan, it was always an important part of our vision to have two young up and coming tens,” added Lam.

“We offered long-term contracts to Callum Sheedy and Billy Searle – Callum accepted, unfortunately Billy didn’t, so we went looking for the next best young, English ten coming through, and we found him in Tiff Eden.”

With the marquee signing of Charles Piutau announced last August, and contract extensions for 12 current players, Lam’s squad for the 2018/19 season has taken shape in the space of 24 hours.

But for now, the focus is firmly on the present, with nine vital GKIPA Championship fixtures remaining for the current league leaders.


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