By Neale Harvey
Jordan Crane reckons Bristol’s back row can be the foundation of a stellar season as they aim to silence the critics who are already writing them off.
Bristol kick-off their campaign with a sizzling home derby against fierce rivals Bath before facing daunting trips to title holders Saracens and then Gloucester.
However, Crane reckons Pat Lam’s side are ready for their baptism of fire, with the acquisition of ace Aussie back rower George Smith providing extra punch.
Crane told The Rugby Paper: “Of course we’ll be written off and it’s true that the last two promoted sides have gone back down, but the good thing this time is there were no play-offs in the Championship so it made recruitment a lot easier.
“It also meant we could start building as soon as our last game finished in April, so we’ve had a good four-week training block already and have been into our rugby a lot sooner than before.
“We’re ahead of the eight-ball in that sense and all the systems Pat and the coaches put in place last season just roll forward. The existing guys will be able to translate that to our new guys, so we’re in a good spot to hopefully have a very good season.”
Crane continued: “We’ve added a few heavy hitters and with George Smith arriving soon as well, it’s not a bad pack of forwards we’ve put together. If you look at our back row, it’s very strong and competitive – as good as anything in the Premiership.
“Dan Thomas was outstanding last season and he’ll be one to watch this year when he’s fit again. There aren’t many genuine No.7s left in the game and he’s great over the ball, quick across the pitch and a great support player. Then we’ve got Sam Jeffries who’s a good six/second row option who operates well in the lineout and is very athletic.
“Those young lads are ready to shine and when you add in the likes of Steven Luatua, George Smith, Jack Lam and, dare I say, myself, it’s a great back row. We’re strong all over our pack and believe we’re going to give our backs some great ball.”
Crane says the influence of star signings like John Afoa will be crucial, as he reveals how the 34-year-old ex-Gloucester prop chose to forego his summer off.
“We couldn’t keep him away,” Crane said. “As soon as Gloucester’s season finished he was straight into our pre-season, bantering with the boys. He’s a great addition to our squad, never misses a session and is a brilliant example to everybody.
“If the older lads can come in and show the way, it’s good for the squad as a whole because the last thing you want is older guys getting preferential treatment. You want everybody equal because that’s what builds the culture within a team.”
Crane, 32, admits his first Premiership season at Bristol in 2016/17 was a shocker after spending the previous decade at Leicester. However, the powerful No.8 was in the vanguard of last season’s promotion charge and feels better prepared.
He added: “My first year didn’t go well, but last year was really enjoyable and I loved working with Pat Lam and Conor McPhillips. They brought a lot of stuff I was used to at Leicester, like structure, direction and culture, which I’m enjoying now.
“I’ve been around a while since making my Leeds debut at 18 and have played over 300 games, but I still have the same enthusiasm. If we can do well in our first block of six league games, that’s going to be key.”