Pat Lam: Bristol want to be like bears; smart, strong and ready for the kill

Pat Lam: Bristol Bears' head coach. Andrew Surma/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Pat Lam is talking about bears, and their various characteristics.

"Some animals will go for the kill the whole time, but the bear will go for the kill when it absolutely has to, while having that soft side," Lam says, as he tells the story of exactly why Bristol have the added omnivoran mammal moniker to their name for their return to English rugby's top flight.

"[Bristol owner] Steve Lansdown was keen on the bears and what they represent around intelligence, strength, how they protect their own and the community," Bristol Bears' head coach Lam explains to ESPN.

"So every characteristic of the bear is what we're trying to do as an organisation.

"That's how I like to coach -- sometimes you have to put the stick on players and sometimes you need to put your arm around them. To have that as our symbol resonates with what we're trying to do."

Some scoffed at Bristol adding Bears to their fresh, new, identity. But spend time with Lam, and it makes sense. Equally it is hard to question his prediction that Bristol have sights realistically set on the top six rather than a relegation battle, despite history weighted heavily against such a bold forecast. He looks at their promotion to the Gallagher Premiership as an opportunity to secure a spot in next season's Champions Cup, rather than to merely feed off the scraps of the top table.

It is an all-encompassing ethos: one built on community, player ownership, collective leadership, enjoyment and responsibility. All of these, Lam says, should lead to success.

"I knew it was more than just a game, which is what I'm about. I believe the vision drives leadership, leadership drives culture and culture drives performance. So once we had clarity as an organisation, and then a vision as a team, I wanted us to be looking at the Champions Cup and a team which has players playing for England."

It was fortunate that Chairman Chris Booy and owner Lansdown preached a vision Lam could relate to. Had they merely challenged him to deliver results in a robotic manner, he would never have taken the short flight over the Irish Sea from Connacht to Bristol at the end of the 2016-17 campaign.

It was their passion around community which sealed the deal. This was a key pillar in how Lam turned Connacht from also-rans to Pro 12 champions, winning the title with their brand of attacking, easy on the eye rugby to end a 121-year drought without a major trophy. Lam could have had a job for life there, but then came Bristol and their ambitious task to turn an underachieving, sleeping giant into the city-inspiring, successful team they had the potential to be.

Lam has a dab of Connacht's winning DNA in his backroom staff with his old captain John Muldoon now on the Bristol coaching ticket, that familiarity continues with their new signings. While they have recruited 21 players this summer, Lam says he has already worked with half of them and he knows they will buy into the community-focused drive of the club, without thinking twice before diving straight into whatever extra-curricular task Lam hands them.

He says an hour is long enough to find the crux of a potential signing's character, and while money is no object at Bristol -- Lansdown's £1.72 billion worth put him 76th in Sunday Time' list of the 1,000 wealthiest folk in the UK -- recruitment is an ongoing project, and one which is meticulously planned all under the salary cap's parameters.

Charles Piutau was their major close-season arrival, which says a bunch about Bristol's ambition given they have also recruited 111-cap veteran George Smith and All Black tight-head John Afoa.

"Everyone thinks we have all this money and resources and while yes, he's [Lansdown's] wealthy but we just have a portion of his money -- no more, no less than anyone else, but we know we're secure," Lam says. "There's also responsibility, it's about using that money to ensure the performance is heading towards the vision.

"The thing about Charles, a lot has been made about what he's worth, but this was not us competing. The marquee rule is there to ensure we have the best players available to play in the Premiership. So all Steve Lansdown did was give us the ability to bring Charles Piutau into the Premiership. If he wasn't here, he'd be in the Top 14. The Pro 14 wanted to keep him, but that's all Steve did -- he did the Premiership a favour."

But there will be few freebies handed out when Bristol begin their Premiership campaign against old foes Bath on Friday night at Ashton Gate. West Country fervour will be through the roof in that small corner of Bristol and while the smiles of anticipation will inevitably intersperse with opening night nerves, Lam's presence brings a sense of calm and place.

Bristol have long been a yo-yo club: promotion, followed by relegation, followed by another promotion charge. But Lam is not one to dismiss the club's history, he wants to learn from it. "The vision tells you where you're heading and what history also tells you the learnings you can take from what you've done," Lam says. "Our decisions are not based on history, they're based on vision."

So on Friday night, under the floodlights, this won't be Lansdown's Bristol, or Lam's Bristol taking to the pitch. Instead, it will be a team for Bristol, built on foundations of bears, recruitment, history, passion and a sense of being back in their rightful place. They are back with a roar, rather than an apology.

"I want Bristolians to come through," Lam says. "Once you invest in a community, the community gets behind you. Remember those old days where you played for your home town, but now players come from everywhere. When you're under pressure, you need to know who you represent. That's where community comes in.

"When we won the Pro 12 at Connacht, it was a symbol, a moment of inspiration. But we had to keep moving on so you're constantly inspiring. It's based on growth and inspiring the next boys coming through -- and that's done through what we do day to day.

"We'll prepare the best we can as what we do on the field, is a celebration for what we've done on the training ground. If we are lethargic or complacent in training, it'll come out on the field, but if we better ourselves every day, we can enjoy that on the field."