Two seasons on from finishing first, Bristol Bears finished ninth in the Gallagher Premiership Rugby table last time out.
Pat Lam’s side will be hoping to challenge back towards the top end this time around and the summer at Ashton Gate has seen some significant changes.
Numerous star players have left for pastures new but an exciting series of new arrivals, not least Virimi Vakatawa, are set to spearhead a new era in BS3.
A number of the club’s star men have already begun their season at the Rugby World Cup, while Lam has been heading up proceedings back in the West Country and looking ahead to the new campaign.
“It’s been one of the longer pre-seasons that we’ve had, but it’s been focused,” Lam said.
“We’re not happy with where we have ended up the last two seasons.
“There has been a lot of good things in those seasons, but compared to where we wanted to be and where we ended up has given us a focus on how we’ve driven the pre-season.
“We are aspiring to be more consistent as a team. I’m proud of the fact we’ve had six seasons in the Gallagher Premiership, which is an achievement, but it’s enabled us to build experience, understand it better and hopefully we’ll be a lot better this season.”
In the Premiership Rugby Cup, Bristol have had mixed fortunes. Losses to Exeter Chiefs and Ealing Trailfinders have been balanced out by victories against Northampton Saints and Doncaster Knights, with Lam giving a large number of his squad the opportunity to impress.
Ins and Outs
At the end of last season, Bears said goodbye to three of their most experienced players.
Semi Radradra and Charlies Piutau brought box office entertainment to Ashton Gate, the pair an integral part of the side that finished top of the pile in 2020/21, although injury robbed each of them playing time for extended periods of time.
Joe Joyce, the lock forward who racked up over 150 appearances for his local club over nine seasons, has also departed and will line up for Connacht this season.
To contend with their outgoings, Pat Lam has recruited rather spectacularly. This includes the signature of former France international Vakatawa, who returns to professional rugby a year on from his retirement due to a heart condition.
Likely to be a like-for-like replacement for Radradra, Vakatawa is set to combine with England international Max Malins, who joins from Saracens and will be looking to take on the starting full-backs jersey as his own following Piutau’s departure.
Ins: Max Malins (Saracens), Kalaveti Ravouvou (Fijian Drua), Kieran Marmion (Connacht), Gabriel Oghre (Bordeaux), Sam Wolstenholme (Leicester Tigers), Benhard Janse van Rensburg (unattached), Josh Caulfield (unattached), Santiago Grondona (Pau), Virimi Vakatawa (unattached)
Outs: Joe Joyce (Connacht), Will Porter (Harlequins), Semi Radradra (Lyon), Sam Bedlow (Sale Sharks), Andy Uren (Benetton), Morgan Eames (Bourgoin-Jallieu), Ioan Lloyd (Scarlets), Bryan Byrne (Newcastle Falcons), Pete Carter (released), Sam Lewis (released), Aaron Thompson (released), Charles Piutau (Shizuoka Blue Revs), Rhys Charalambous (London Scottish), John Hawkins (Jersey Reds), Jac Lloyd (Sydney University), Martin Mulhall (Warringah), Sam Jeffries (Tokyo Sungoliath), Jake Kerr (Watsonian), Tom Wilstead (Rosslyn Park), Henry Purdy (Agen), Toby Fricker (Ospreys)
Fantasy Rugby must-have
While star names such as Vakatawa, Kalaveti Ravouvou and Ellis Genge will take the headlines, Bristol Bears’ key player comes in the form of Harry Thacker.
Since his arrival in the West Country all the way back in 2018, the hooker has been a consistent source of tries for the club.
Scoring 16 times in his debut season at Ashton Gate, Thacker should continue to be an important cog in Pat Lam’s machine as they aim for the top four once again.
One to watch
There are a series of exciting, young players emerging for Bristol and Andrew Turner is a player that should have a close eye kept on him.
A local talent, the 21-year-old attended Filton College and played for Weston-super-Mare prior to joining the Bears academy.
Earlier this year, Turner, along with Macenzzie Duncan and Paddy Pearce, were sent to New Zealand to play for Sumner RFC thanks to a relationship with incoming All Blacks head coach, Scott Robertson.
Robertson soon took a liking to Turner, taking him into the Crusaders training environment, the young loosehead prop drafted in to be a replacement for the side in the Round 11 clash with Western Force.
Making one more appearance for the side before his return to the northern hemisphere, Turner has played two Premiership Rugby Cup games and may well find himself in the matchday 23 more often with senior internationals on World Cup duty.
Finishing ninth last season was below the standards that Pat Lam’s side have previously set.
With a number of comings and going this summer, the Bears team that steps onto the pitch to take on Leicester Tigers in their season opener will have a fresh look to it.
But a number of seasoned campaigners are there to lend their experience to the cause and there is plenty of international quality among the playmakers.
With that depth, Bristol should expect to have improved fortunes in the league and target the top four once again.