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West Country foes set to rekindle rivalry in Ashton Gate near sell-out

(Photo: JMP)

Bristol Bears

Newly promoted clubs have a habit of going straight back down, as Bristol know from their rise and fall in 2016-17. Having managed to get another bite at the cherry they should be better prepared this time, and have turned to New Zealand to provide the coaching and playing inspiration to not only keep them in the top tier, but to deliver the vibrant future envisioned by their billionaire owner, Steve Lansdown.

Having won the Championship, Bristol’s Kiwi-Samoan coach Pat Lam has hatched a plan to make them a permanent Premiership fixture. It is underpinned by the signing of three All Blacks, sparkling full-back/wing Charles Piutau, back rower Steven Luatua, and veteran prop John Afoa.

A few weeks ago Lam made a further Dad’s Army addition by bringing in the 38-year-old Wallaby great, George Smith. However, he has blended old and new by poaching a cohort of the best props Bristol faced in the Championship, and he predicts that Jake Armstrong, Lewis Thiede, and Jake Wilmore will soon be knocking on England’s door.

Bristol should have a formidable backline, but it is the set-piece where promoted clubs struggle most. There is a great deal resting on the shoulders of Lam’s inexperienced front row acquisitions. If they measure up Bristol will set sail, if not they will sink.


Player of watch: Charles Piutau

The All Black wing has proved a class act for Wasps and Ulster – and now Bristol are the beneficiaries. Piutau is a finisher as well as a play-maker, and if the Bristol pack provide the means he will provide the ends. Worry over Friday night’s shoulder injury.


Backline additions: Bath regulars Anthony Watson and Semesa Rokoduguni are joined by Jamie Roberts for the team photos (photo: Harry Trump/Getty Images)

Bath

Anyone who believes that great training facilities guarantees a great team need only look as far as Bath for the counterpoint. Since Bruce Craig took over ownership of the club and invested almost immediately in five-star training and rehabilitation facilities at Farleigh House the only thing that appears to have grown is the length of Bath’s injury list.

There has been a low rumble of discontent for some time among the ‘old school’ hard cases who steered Bath to five league titles in the 1990s – and honed their skills in the mud and mire of the Lambridge training ground – that the current culture at the club they served with such distinction is soft.

Their view that there are too many egos and too little grit in Craig’s big bucks squad is given credence by the fact that Bath have not been English club champions since 1996.

The good news for Bath’s loyal supporters is that last season’s mid-table finish thanks to a late gallop at least delivered European Cup qualification.

The bad news for Kiwi coach Todd Blackadder is that with European champions Leinster in their group, alongside Wasps and Toulouse, Bath will have to rediscover their soul if they are to reach the knock-out stage, or to mount a credible challenge for the English title.


Player to watch: Will Chudley

Perpetual-motion man Chudley will inject tempo into Bath’s game in the same way he did at Exeter. He is a scrum-half who also brings a high level of consistency, and coach Todd Blackadder will be hoping that rubs off on a Bath team not renowned for their rigour.

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