Ten years ago, Bristol were in the Championship and facing bankruptcy. Today they sit top of the Premiership and have stunned the rugby world by signing the Fiji wing Semi Radradra, one of the standout players at the World Cup, on a three-year contract.
Since league rugby started in 1987, Bristol have only finished in the top half of the elite division four times and their story in the professional era before Steve Lansdown took over the club in 2012 was largely one of struggle, on the field and financially with the next crisis never far away.
Lansdown is one of the Premiership’s richest owners but he has not used his money to buy success. He started with a long-term plan that was based on the club becoming sustainable and which made establishing links with the community as important as recruiting the likes of Radradra to help sell season tickets.
"Every top club in both codes across the planet wanted to sign Semi Radradra, so for Bristol to be able to bring in a player of his quality shows the fantastic work that the club is doing," said the Bears' director of rugby, Pat Lam, whose decision to sign a new contract at the end of last season was more significant for Lansdown than any player he has brought in. "As a person and a player, he is perfect for our culture which places an emphasis on community and high performance."
Lam, who as a player captained Samoa and led Northampton in their 2000 Heineken Cup final victory over Munster at Twickenham, joined Bristol in 2017 from Connacht, where he had guided the least celebrated of Ireland's four provinces to the then-Pro 12 title. The club had just been relegated after a first season in the Premiership for seven years. They came straight back and were never in danger of going down last season, even if their ninth-place finish underwhelmed Lam whose ambition was a top-six slot rather than survival.
The signing of Radradra, who can play wing or centre, is more than a statement of intent by Bristol. They are also being linked with the England and Harlequins prop Kyle Sinckler and the Wales flanker Justin Tipuric, who is out of contract at the Ospreys at the end of the season. The Welsh region, who parted company with their head coach Allen Clarke this week after a poor run of results – although no one was allowed to speak about the matter at a media briefing on Wednesday – are struggling financially and would not be able to match the Bears.
Earlier this year, Lam said before he signed a player he assessed their character as well as their ability: “Laying down roots is the key for all successful teams. You need a core group of guys who understand the culture. If a player comes here just to get paid, he is in the wrong place.
“Being a Bristol Bear is about more than rugby and we want players whose hunger to succeed is based on a dream. Players here enjoy doing community work because it is part of the vision they were sold on.”
Lam met Radradra over the weekend after Bordeaux-Bègles’s European Challenge Cup draw in Edinburgh last Friday. “I worked with him during my time with the Barbarians,” Lam said. “I saw what he was like off the field and said that if he ever wanted to come to the UK to give me a call. His agent got in touch during the World Cup and said Semi was keen to join.
“I wanted him to see Bristol and he got here last Saturday. I picked him up and took him to Ashton Gate. He was blown away by it. It was bucketing down with rain, but he saw how good the playing surface was and I showed him plans of our new training facility, which will be finished in May and will be the best in the northern hemisphere, I reckon. I then took him up there and gave him time to breathe on it. I put an offer to him on Monday, he signed it the next day and we announced it today.”
Radradra will become Bristol's second marquee player after the fullback Charles Piutau, who is in his final season of a £1 million (€1.1 million) a year contract and will be offered a new one. "With marquee players, it is not about competing with other Premiership clubs but the top teams in the world," said Lam.
“We are well below the salary cap and we are not interested in anything that is not legal. I look at every rugby player who is available and have turned down some very good ones because they were not the right fit here. That is the importance of having a plan: previously at Bristol, there wasn’t one.”