Semi Radradra’s revolutionary impact at Bristol has taken them to the next level
Sunday marks a homecoming of sorts for Semi Radradra in Bordeaux, with Bristol’s superstar outside centre returning to the Stade Chaban-Delmas where he spent two seasons ripping up the Top 14.
It’s hardly a surprise that the Fijian’s arrival has coincided with Bristol’s surge towards the top of the Gallagher Premiership table over the past two seasons, and ahead of Radradra’s reunion with Bordeaux-Begles in the Champions Cup round of 16, his head coach Pat Lam outlined the impact Radradra has made at Bristol off the field as much as on it. Not just by revolutionising some of his team-mates’ training habits, but also his influence behind a key investment at the club’s flash new training ground: a sauna.
“Semi says to me, ‘we need a sauna’, and I told him there’s no budget for one,” explains Bristol head coach Pat Lam. “So the players paid for it and we got a nice flash sauna which is fantastic. He’s in there all the time. Maybe it’s his Fiji away from home.”
Lam spoke this week about the influence John Afoa has had on Bristol’s squad, following the 37-year-old former All Black’s latest contract extension. Radradra is no different.
“[Radradra] has changed so many habits, particularly in our backs. We talk about John Afoa, Semi’s exactly the same. Backs used to meander in and stand around. Say the backs’ weights session is about to start at 10:30, now if I go down at 10:15 they’re all stretching, rolling, basically mirroring what Semi does. He came straight in and started doing extras, rehab stretches, and that’s just the routine that happens here now. That’s what you want.”
There was certainly no room for such luxuries when Bristol were slogging to get out of Championship as recently as four years ago, at least until Lam arrived. Aside from the 2018-19 season when Bristol fell short of Champions Cup rugby, every target has been met; promotion, making the Premiership semi-finals, winning the Challenge Cup last season. All that’s left is the small matter of winning the league title and Champions Cup, and regarding the latter, that objective has been in place from the moment Lam walked in through the door. Lam recalled how he was “scoffed at” for explaining his lofty ambitions for the club when he arrived.
“I made it very clear, it’s on our wall. This is what we’ve worked for,” Lam stresses. “This isn’t a one-off season. When I first said it I think a lot of people scoffed at it and said just worry about getting into the Premiership.
“Right from the very beginning, we made it clear we want some stars on this jersey. We want to be playing the Toulouses and the Leinsters and the Munsters, all those big teams that have won the Champions Cup. That’s where we want to be. That’s the level. The Premiership is a fantastic tournament and I know how tough it is because I’ve played in it. But the Champions Cup is the best of the best in the northern hemisphere, you know. That’s the standard you want to be every single year. We’re not there. But we’ve arrived now to play in this competition for the first time in a long time, and put ourselves in the best position we can at this stage of our development to give it a good crack on Sunday.”
Spotting Bristol’s improvement across the board is easy enough. Look at the statistics and you’ll find a steady increase in points per game, tries per game, tackle success, lineout success and metres per carry over the past three seasons. Even their offloads per game, which dipped a little last season, are currently at a season high since Bristol returned to the top flight. Even the biggest Bristol sceptic, if there even is one, would have to recognise that sustained level of improvement.
The big guns such as Radradra obviously help, but it’s the strides made by players who have been part of this project from the start – Callum Sheedy, Harry Randall, Piers O’Conor, Dan Thomas – plus the way others such as Bryan Byrne, Dave Attwood and Nathan Hughes have kickstarted their careers at Ashton Gate which has been the most impressive part of Bristol’s rise.
Not forgetting the presence of their superb captain, Steven Luatua, and a timely name change on their first season back in the Premiership. It’s hard to remember Bristol without their Bears moniker, and the veteran tighthead Afoa, according to Lam, is ‘Papa Bear’.
“I love the fact that we became the Bears, because the whole quality of the bear is my coaching philosophy,” Lam adds. “That when it’s time to protect and fight for what it needs, it will and it will be aggressive. But then when it’s time to look after your own and your community, John’s a perfect example of that.”
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