THE AVIVA PREMIERSHIP season gets underway this evening with what should be an absorbing meeting between the newly-promoted, newly-rebranded Bristol Bears and Bath.
Pat Lam’s Bristol have already sold more than 25,000 tickets as they get set for a record crowd at their home ground of Ashton Gate.
Ian Madigan, Pat Lam and Steven Luatua before last weekend’s friendly defeat to Connacht. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
Far from being content just to survive in the Premiership this season, Lam and his players have spent the summer underlining their ambition to go straight into the top six and earn Champions Cup qualification.
After the inevitable initial backlash, their supporters appear to have embraced the new ‘Bears’ branding and a good start to the season should ensure any remaining murmurs of discontent die out.
Bristol’s return to the top flight also means exposure to the Premiership for a small Irish contingent working under Lam.
Former Ireland and Leinster out-half Ian Madigan will be keen to show his quality after spending a season in the Championship, while ex-Connacht pair Conor McPhillips and John Muldoon are now part of Lam’s coaching team.
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Flanker Jake Heenan and lock Aly Muldowney, both former Connacht players, are among the new signings at Bristol, while ex-Ireland U20 lock Joe Joyce is also part of the squad.
There are further Irish links in former Ireland U19 Sevens international Callum Sheedy, ex-Ireland Exiles U18s midfielder Jack Tovey and the Ireland U19s-capped centre Piers O’Conor, who is regarded as one to watch this season.
With Bristol playing a similar 2-4-2 system to the one that helped Connacht to their Pro12 success in 2016, Lam is very much the master of the ship.