All is very quiet on the western front in the early-season Premiership table. Bath, Gloucester, Exeter and Bristol, in descending order, fill the bottom four rungs and the first big derby of the autumn, involving the Bears and Bath, lacks the carefree cider-fuelled Friday night festive mood it might otherwise have had.
A raucous Ashton Gate crowd of about 25,000 will still ensure plenty of noise but both teams’ winless starts have already prompted local muttering. In Bath’s mercurial case that is nothing new but Bristol, having finished top of the regular season pile in May, have resembled a side yet to fully regroup after the unravelling of their title ambitions from 28-0 up against Harlequins in an extraordinary semi-final in June.
Last Saturday’s 44-8 defeat by Wasps, after their 26-9 opening-night loss at home to Saracens, is certainly not the start Pat Lam would have wanted having just signed a new five-year contract as director of rugby. His team have managed one try in 160 minutes, failed to score a single second-half point and, in the absence of some key players, have looked anything but shipshape.
The return of Kyle Sinckler, desperate to get back in action as early as possible after the Lions tour, is a much-needed fillip but Semi Radradra is still unavailable as are the influential John Afoa, Dave Attwood, Harry Thacker and Luke Morahan. With Max Malins and Ben Earl now back at Saracens and Siale Piutau having moved on, the Bears’ larder is not quite as stacked with fresh honey as it was.
Lam, though, did not get where he is today by assuming the worst is about to happen. In his view it is way too early to start fretting and peaking at the business end of the season is rather more vital. “What everyone sees is a snapshot,” he said, adamant the “Bristol way” of buccaneering adventure is still the way forward.
“Our process hasn’t changed, winning or losing. There are a few players in our group who are not at the top of their game but they’re determined to get there and hopefully it’ll be this week. When that happens we’re not far off.”
Any side in the world would miss the rampaging Radradra while Afoa remains a major cog at the age of 37. Closer examination of the games has identified turnovers and discipline as the root cause of the Bears’ difficulties, along with a tendency to lose momentum around the half-hour mark. That was not a problem last season, particularly against Bath, who were hammered by a record 48-3 margin in this corresponding fixture in January.
It will be fascinating, accordingly, to see what unfolds this time against opponents who welcome back Will Stuart and Josh McNally to their starting XV. Anthony Watson, another summer Lion, and Lewis Boyce, after almost a year out, return on the bench. Bath have lost their opening fixtures, to Sale and Newcastle, and will be as keen as Bristol to break their duck.
With as many as eight sides potentially capable of winning this season’s title, this looks destined to be a season of fine margins and fluctuating fortunes for almost everybody. Bristol may also have to cope with more international call-ups than last season but Lam stressed his squad has had dark days in the past and emerged the stronger for them.
“We experienced a 50-point loss to Worcester and a 40-odd defeat to Saracens. We lost five games in a row two years ago and we’ve been hammered by 40-50 points by Sale and Wasps. We’ve had some tribulation and tough times before and come out of it. Our fans want to see us winning but most importantly they want to us to finish the season stronger this time.”
Just as vital, perhaps, is to lay on a show that encourages any floating supporters to come back and helps precipitate a U-turn after the bizarre axing of the weekly Premiership highlights programme from terrestrial television.
Lam is as mystified as anyone – “I’m a huge believer that the more exposure our game gets the better … I thought Channel 5 did a great job” – and said that his own children were far more switched on to rugby when they and their friends were all able to watch it easily.
Losing the odd early-season game really is a minor detail compared with losing a whole generation of fans.