For all of Pat Lam’s amiable qualities, the Bristol Bears director of rugby couldn’t help but let the frustration creep through when he spoke to the press with a bit more bite and snap following his side’s 27-10 defeat to Gloucester Rugby.
Basic errors and indiscipline hurt the Bears badly on Friday night, but it was the contrast between the two side’s game management that was both startling and decisive.
Lam identified a key moment in the 52nd minute that proved pivotal for all the wrong reasons and a perfect summary of Bristol’s problems
The Bears, having been disjointed and unthreatening in the first half to trail 8-3 at the break after Gloucester’s incredible maul had powered hooker Jack Singleton over the try line in the 38th minute, were back in the contest.
Bristol exploded out the blocks in the second half, scoring a superb try from a cross-field kick from Callum Sheedy that bounced fortuitously into the arms of Henry Purdy, to take the lead in the contest for the first time, going 10-8 up just five minutes after the interval.
Seven minutes later and the Bears were in prime position to pounce again, with their vastly improved scrum – anchored by 38-year-old John Afoa for the full 80 minutes – winning a penalty 10 metres out.
England scrum-half Harry Randall, playing his first game in seven weeks after returning from a hip flexor injury sustained while training with the national side, did what comes naturally to him and quick tapped the penalty and sniped blind. But Gloucester were more ready for it than Bristol.
Randall shipped a pass to the returning Semi Radradra and asked him to perform a miracle, an all too often occurrence. But the outstanding Gloucester full-back Lloyd Evans, who is normally a fly-half, put in a textbook low chop tackle on the Fijian superstar to bring him to deck and man of the match Ruan Ackermann came in to win the battle of the breakdown and turn the ball over.
Chance gone, pressure released, Gloucester able to clear their lines.
That was indicative of the night.
When quick tap penalties work the scoring team is heralded as brave, attacking geniuses; when they fail poor decision-makers. Somewhere in between is often the truth, quick taps work when the whole orchestra is completely in time, in tune and playing the same note, which is not where the Bears find themselves right now.
Lam said: “We had enough moments during that game where we didn’t show enough composure.
“We had a penalty in front of the sticks. I have no problem with deciding to go but then we turned the ball over. We could have been further ahead or building more pressure [trying to score a try] but we ended up turning the ball over.”
Gloucester’s positional kicking was far superior throughout, with the likes of scrum-half Ben Meehan, centre Mark Atkinson and winger Louis Rees-Zammit putting in perfectly weighted, intelligent nudges to force Bristol to play their way out from close or even behind their own tryline.
Atkinson put in a stunning grubber kick for Chris Harris to gather for the Cherry and Whites’ second try of the night before the powerful home pack earned a penalty try from a 5m lineout after Dan Thomas brought down a maul that referee Christophe Ridley probably correctly judged was heading across the whitewash.
In the closing stages replacement scrum-half Charlie Chapman put the icing on the cake for the hosts, scoring a stunning solo effort from 55m out after breaking off the back of a scrum, dummying his opposite number Tom Whiteley and then burning Henry Purdy for pace on the outside down the tramlines.
The youngster who used to support Gloucester in the Shed as a child was almost sucked back into the stands as he burst into a wild celebration worry of winning a cup final as he secured the bonus point for his side.
That is the other problem Bristol face. Success paints a target on your back and the Cherry and Whites were gunning for the Bears having lost their last five ‘derby’ games with their West Country rivals.
Reflecting on what went wrong, Lam added: “There is frustration because we couldn’t get momentum into the game and when we did we turned it over.
“We needed to put the ball in behind them when they had 13 in the front line, we talked about that coming here, and we didn’t.
“The setpiece was really good but what we did off it wasn’t.
“I don’t have any complaints. We certainly lost that game fair and square because we didn’t apply enough pressure or have enough momentum moments that we are used to.”
Asked by Bristol Live what needs to change, Lam responded straightly and simply: “We need to catch the ball.”
Despite the result, the huge boost for the Bears was the return of Semi Radradra for his first appearance of the season having injured his knee in the summer while helping Fiji win a gold medal in sevens at the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
With Radradra’s first touch, 10 seconds into the second half having replaced the injured Alapati Leiua, he dissected British and Irish Lions pair Louis Rees-Zammit and Chris Harris and offloaded to Henry Purdy to create a line break.
It was a moment of magic he makes look mundane, but few humans on this planet can pull off at this level.
But Bristol must use Radradra wisely, not use throw the ball to him out of structure and hope for the best as they were guilty of at times at Kingsholm.
Lam said: “It is great to have him back.
“He has been phenomenal to get back earlier than he was supposed to. I could see he was a little bit nervous to get back out there but he did a great job and showed what he can do.
“It was great to have him and some of the other guys back as we now start our European campaign.”
Those other guys were the aforementioned Afoa, Randall, winger Luke Morahan, hooker Harry Thacker and of course captain Steven Luatua who all returned from injuries in time for back-to-back European games starting with the Scarlets on Saturday providing the Welsh region can muster enough players with the majority of their squad in isolation until the day before the game after getting trapped in South Africa as the country was put on the UK government’s travel red list due to Covid.
Heading into Europe after 10 rounds of domestic action, last season’s table-toppers Bristol sit 12th in the 13 team Premiership table, with only winless Bath below them. But Lam is confident there is time to make an assault up the table
Lam said: “We park this now, we go into the Champions Cup and that is exciting.
“We have got enough games to come back later on but our focus now is starting next week and getting a good start.”
Lam was unable to say whether Samoan international Leiua will play a part next weekend having taken a bang to his knee just before half time after making his side’s only line break of the first half.
Leiua was sent with ice strapped to just below the front of his knee cap and was walking with the aid of crutches after the game.
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Gloucester Rugby: 15. Lloyd Evans, 14. Louis Rees-Zammit, 13. Chris Harris, 12. Mark Atkinson, 11. Ollie Thorley, 10. Adam Hastings, 9. Ben Meehan; 1. Val Rapava-Ruskin, 2. Jack Singleton, 3. Kirill Gotovtsev, 4. Freddie Clarke, 5. Matias Alemanno, 6. Ruan Ackermann, 7. Lewis Ludlow (c), 8. Ben Morgan
Replacements: 16. Santiago Socino, 17. Harry Elrington, 18. Jamal Ford-Robinson, 19. Andrew Davidson, 20. Jordy Reid, 21. Charlie Chapman, 22. Billy Twelvetrees, 23. Kyle Moyle
Bristol Bears: 15. Charles Piutau, 14. Toby Fricker, 13. Henry Purdy, 12. Piers O’Conor, 11. Alapati Leiua, 10. Callum Sheedy, 9. Harry Randall; 1. Jake Woolmore, 2. Harry Thacker, 3. John Afoa, 4. Dave Attwood, 5. Joe Joyce, 6. Chris Vui, 7. Dan Thomas, 8. Steven Luatua (c).
Replacements: 16. Jake Kerr, 17. Yann Thomas, 18. Ashley Challenger, 19. Jake Heenan, 20. Fitz Harding, 21. Tom Whiteley, 22. Semi Radradra, 23. Luke Morahan.
Referee: Christophe Ridley (49th Premiership game).
Assistant Referees: Anthony Woodthorpe & Dean Richards. TMO: David Rose.