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Rugby: We are the champions

Following Bristol Rugby’s domination last season and promotion to the Gallagher Premiership, there are big changes on the horizon. First up, a name change… Introducing Bristol Bears

Words by Will Carpenter

Promotion back to the Premiership and the announcement of a club rebrand ensured an action-packed end to the 2017/18 season for Bristol Rugby – and with top flight and European rugby now back on the menu at Ashton Gate, it’s the beginning of an exciting and bold new era in the city.

Just three days after a 68–10 demolition of Doncaster Knights at Ashton Gate in April – and the lifting of the GKIPA Championship trophy in front of 13,000 supporters – Bristol Rugby announced it would become Bristol Bears from June 2018, with the club’s owner Steve Lansdown describing the decision as: “an exciting and major commitment to ensuring the future of the club.”

“We have to be prepared to break the mould and be relentless in driving the progression of this rugby club,” he said. “In a challenging market, in order to attract investment and new audiences, we must be brave in our vision. The development of the brand expands our appeal to a global audience at a time when the appetite for professional rugby is growing in international markets.

“We believe these changes – alongside the matchday improvements to Ashton Gate and the continued engagement with local schools and our community – are critical to enable long-term success. We recognise that there is a history and tradition associated with all sports clubs and we are conscious and proud of the loyalty, bond and passion so many share for Bristol Rugby.

“We hope that all supporters will embrace the changes and recognise the significant investment taking place – on and off the field – to bring success and a sustainable future for the club.” More than 4,400 supporters have already signed up for season tickets to follow Bristol Bears in the 2018/19 Gallagher Premiership, with three months still to go before the start of the new campaign.

Attracting a new generation of supporters was one of the key objectives behind the Bristol Bears decision, as was tapping into a growing USA and Asian rugby market, as the club’s chief operating officer, Mark Tainton, explains. “Rugby is evolving, and we cannot be left behind,” he said. “We respect the proud heritage and traditions of the club, but also the values of rugby union. “Premiership rugby is fast becoming a global game, with the US and Asia markets rapidly expanding and opening up exciting new opportunities in media and sponsorship.

“We recognise the potential of this new platform and how it can accelerate our ambition to be a Champions Cup winning organisation. With fixtures now taking place outside of the UK and a regular audience of over 1.25million people watching Premiership rugby across the world, we have a significant chance to cement the iconic Bristol Bears vision as one of the leading brands in world rugby.

“This is not a short-term fit, but instead we see this rebrand as breaking the mould and acting as a catalyst in kick-starting our journey to creating success.

“We already have the world-class stadium – the best club rugby arena in the UK. We’re adding one of the best training facilities in the world, which will be completed by 2020.”

Head coach Pat Lam and his hungry squad know all too well that the demands of the Gallagher Premiership far exceed that of the Championship, but with the beginning of a new era comes fresh expectation, and the future appears bright for players and supporters of the Bristol Bears.

Rhodri Williams dives over against Jersey Reds

Bristol Rugby’s 2017/18 season highlights

• In one of the biggest coups in the club’s history, All Black Charles Piutau agreed to join the team ahead of the 2018/19 season, making him the world’s highest paid player with a £1million per season deal.
• The GKIPA Championship season began for Bristol Rugby with a difficult 26–15 victory over Hartpury at Ashton Gate, despite trailing 7–8 at half time.
• Bristol thrashed Richmond 50–5 as
Max Crumpton scored four tries.
• September ended with an impressive nine-try 61–38 victory over Bedford Blues, with Bristol racking up their highest ever score at Bedford.
• Committed to encouraging home-grown talent, scrum-half Andy Uren signed a senior contract with his boyhood club for next season.
• Rhodri Williams made an impressive six-minute hat-trick against Jersey to make the final score 36–17.
• Academy graduates Callum Sheedy, a fly half, and lock Joe Joyce signed contracts to stay at the club until 2020.
• In an incredible performance, Bristol demolished Rotherham Titans in a
55–10 victory.
• Bristol didn’t let up their league-leading status during the festive period as their impressive win over the Cornish Pirates featured the club’s eventual try of the season by Mat Protheroe.
• Midfield duo Will Hurrell and Jack Tovey finished off the year by signing new deals with the club.
• #SignedUpSaturday saw Pat Lam’s side sign nine new players ahead of the 2018/19 season including John Afoa, Harry Thacker, Jake Heenan, Aly Muldowney, Shaun Malton, Nic Stirzaker, Yann Thomas, Jordan Lay and Tiff Eden.
• As big prospects for the club, James Dun, Aaron Chapman, Will Capon and Charlie Powell all agreed long-term contracts with Bristol Rugby.
• The first month of the new year ended with a battle against Bedford Blues, with Bristol clinching a win by 18–13.
• Bristol took on Ealing Trailfinders in what came to be seen as the biggest game of the season, coming back from behind to beat the West London team 28–27.
• In their 16th successive win of the season, Bristol beat London Scottish 15–55.
• League leaders Bristol began March with their first (and, consequently, their only) league defeat of the season against Jersey Reds at Ashton Gate.
• Looking ahead to next season, Pat Lam secured signings of some of the league’s standout players including Jake Woolmore, Jake Armstrong, Tom Pincus, Lewis Thiede, Luke Daniels, Tom Lindsay and Piers O’Conor.
• Despite the unconventional snowy conditions that occurred in March, Bristol got back to their winning ways with a 24–3 win against Rotherham Titans.
• Dan Thomas, who produced one of the most impressive performances of the season, agreed a two-year contract extension.
• Winger David Lemi announced he would be leaving the club at the end of the season, while there was exciting news as Gloucester scrum-half Harry Randall signed for Bristol.
• Following a victory against Nottingham and second-place Ealing’s defeat to Doncaster the next day, Bristol Rugby were confirmed the winners of the GKIPA Championship title.
• In the final home game of the season,
the team put on a winning performance as Bristol beat Doncaster Knights 68–10 in front of a packed crowd before lifting the trophy and celebrating with fans.
• Before the final game of the season,
the club announced its plans to change its name to Bristol Bears from June 2018.
• The club ended the season on a high with an awards night that saw Joe Joyce scooping the prestigious players’ player of the season prize.
Siale Piutau in the snow at Rotherham
130 years of Bristol Rugby
1888: The Bristol club was formed at the Montpelier Hotel on 18 April 1888 when the Carlton and Redland Park clubs merged. Until the outbreak of the First World War, home matches were played on the County Ground.
1900: Jimmy Peters was a half back from local club Dings. He played 35 first team games for Bristol, and after he moved to Plymouth he became the first black player to play for England.
1908: Officials of the Bristol club were responsible for organising the England v Wales match at Ashton Gate in January. Wales won 28–18, but a thick fog hid the action from the crowd.
1914: Bristol played no matches during the First World War, and many of the club’s players served with distinction during the conflict. At least 26 men who played for Bristol made the ultimate sacrifice.
1921: The Memorial Stadium was built as a tribute to the players who died during the war. The opening match on 24 September was against Cardiff, Bristol winning 19–3.
1924: Bristol travelled to France to play Union Sportive Cognacaise, winning the game 8–6. The French club paid a return visit to Bristol three years later.
1930: Sam Tucker, Bristol’s famous hooker, was summoned to play for England in Cardiff on the morning of the match. He was flown from Filton Aerodrome in a two-seater plane. After landing he hitched a lift to the ground in a coal lorry, and arrived five minutes before kick-off.
1939: During the Second World War a team called Bristol Supporters played in place of Bristol Rugby. At least 16 men who played either teams were killed in the war.
1959-60: During John Blake’s captaincy, Bristol played a revolutionary 15-man style of rugby which became known as Bristol Fashion. The team peaked in 1959-60, winning 36 games, drawing one and losing 10. 834 points were scored in an era when the try was still worth three points.
1965-66: Under the captaincy of Derek Neate, Bristol won a record 39 matches and topped The Sunday Telegraph English Merit Table with 90%.
1971-72: Bristol equalled the club season record of 39 wins, topped 1,000 points for the first time in the club’s history, and won the English and English/Welsh Merit Tables.
1983: Captain Mike Rafter led Bristol to a memorable 28–22 win over Leicester in the Twickenham final. Every round of the cup campaign was played away from home, and winger John Carr scored in every match.
1984: Alan Morley beat the previous world record for the number of tries scored in a career for one club. In all he scored 479 tries in senior rugby, 383 of these for Bristol, and he was awarded an MBE.
1986: Alan Morley played his 520th and last first team game for Bristol. He is the leading appearance maker in the club’s history.
1987-88: The centenary of the club was celebrated with a special game played against the Barbarians, the match ending in a 20–20 draw.
1997: Outside half Mark Tainton became the record points scorer in the club’s history. His eventual career total for Bristol was 2,063.
1999: Bristol finished top of Allied Dunbar Premiership Two and won promotion just a year after being relegated. Promotion was sealed in the final match, a nail-biting win over Worcester.
2002: Bristol first competed in Europe’s elite rugby competition, formerly known as the Heineken Cup, in the 2002-03 season, beating Montferrand 24–19 in the first home match.
2004: Bristol won the Powergen Shield at Twickenham, defeating Waterloo 53–24.
2007: Bristol finished third in the Guinness Premiership, their highest ever league position. Only one match was lost at home.
2011: Bristol won the British & Irish Cup in May, beating Bedford 17–14 at the Memorial Stadium. This was a fitting finale for head coach Paul Hull, who left the club at the end of the season after 22 years.
2013-14: Bristol’s 125th anniversary season was their last at the Memorial Stadium. The final game at the ground was a defeat against London Welsh in the play-off final.
2014: A new era dawned for the club as Bristol moved to Ashton Gate. There was a thrilling ending to the club’s first game at their new home, with Ben Mosses scoring a last-minute try to defeat Worcester.
2015-16: Bristol were promoted to the Premiership after defeating Doncaster over two legs in the play-off final. They were relegated the following season.
2017-18: Bristol were promoted to the Premiership again as outright winners of the Championship.
Bill Redwood, a superb scrum half who won two England caps in 1968