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Lam's Irish-influenced Bristol Bears have big ambitions for the Premiership

Former Ireland U19 international Piers O’Conor has been impressed by the likes of Ian Madigan.

THE AVIVA PREMIERSHIP season gets underway this evening with what should be an absorbing meeting between the newly-promoted, newly-rebranded Bristol Bears and Bath.

Pat Lam’s Bristol have already sold more than 25,000 tickets as they get set for a record crowd at their home ground of Ashton Gate.

Ian Madigan and Steve Luatua with head coach Pat lam Ian Madigan, Pat Lam and Steven Luatua before last weekend's friendly defeat to Connacht. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Far from being content just to survive in the Premiership this season, Lam and his players have spent the summer underlining their ambition to go straight into the top six and earn Champions Cup qualification.

After the inevitable initial backlash, their supporters appear to have embraced the new ‘Bears’ branding and a good start to the season should ensure any remaining murmurs of discontent die out.

Bristol’s return to the top flight also means exposure to the Premiership for a small Irish contingent working under Lam.

Former Ireland and Leinster out-half Ian Madigan will be keen to show his quality after spending a season in the Championship, while ex-Connacht pair Conor McPhillips and John Muldoon are now part of Lam’s coaching team.

Flanker Jake Heenan and lock Aly Muldowney, both former Connacht players, are among the new signings at Bristol, while ex-Ireland U20 lock Joe Joyce is also part of the squad.

There are further Irish links in former Ireland U19 Sevens international Callum Sheedy, ex-Ireland Exiles U18s midfielder Jack Tovey and the Ireland U19s-capped centre Piers O’Conor, who is regarded as one to watch this season.

With Bristol playing a similar 2-4-2 system to the one that helped Connacht to their Pro12 success in 2016, Lam is very much the master of the ship.

“He’s incredibly hands-on, he helps out everybody,” says 23-year-old O’Conor, who is not part of the squad to face Bath, but instead lines out alongside Joyce and Tovey in the Heenan-captained Bristol A team that plays Bath United this afternoon.

Pat Lam and Ultan Dillane Lam catches up with Ultan Dillane. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Pat is involved in everything and he’ll pull you over and talk you through things if anything’s wrong. He’s been brilliant.”

Assistant coach McPhillips, who previously played for Connacht, was an important figure behind the scenes at the western province during Lam’s time there and it was no surprise that he was lured across to Bristol when Lam joined the club.  

“Conor has some brilliant ideas with set-piece and he keeps it fresh,” says O’Conor. “He’s always testing us, so him and Pat work really well together in getting our backline going, our shape in attack and D.”

Muldoon’s retirement from playing at the end of last season left a big hole in Connacht’s squad in terms of leadership and in the back row, with Robin Copeland set to attempt to fill the void.

The Portumna man is already making his influence felt in Bristol as he gets his coaching career up and running under Lam.

“He’s settled in really well and everyone’s looking forward to our D,” explains O’Conor, who joined Bristol from Ealing this summer.

“It’s looking strong and we’re feeling confident about the way we want to do things. John is pushing for some very high standards and he’s running a very good system.”

On the pitch tonight against Bath, out-half Madigan will have a big part to play, as well as big names such as captain Steven Luatua, veteran openside George Smith, new tighthead John Afoa, and Aussie scrum-half Nic Stirzaker.

Ian Madigan Madigan is Bristol's main man at 10. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

29-year-old Madigan was understandably outstanding in the Championship last season, but is likely to feel that the Premiership is a more suitable arena in which to show his ability.

“He’s a very, very skillful player,” says O’Conor of Madigan. “I’m really enjoying working with him and whenever we’ve had the opportunities together, he’s putting me through holes and he’s giving me the ball early.

“He knows the game plan perfectly, so it’s good to learn from him with his experience.”

O’Conor will hope to push his way into Bristol’s senior squad in the coming weeks, but is also enjoying learning from experienced midfielders like Samoan internationals Alapati Leiua and Tusi Pisi, as well as Tongan Siale Piutau.

Despite having played for the Ireland U19s, having been identified by the IRFU’s Exiles branch, O’Conor is oddly not Irish-qualified.

O’Conor’s subsequent England U20 caps aren’t the issue, rather his grandfather’s battle to officially prove that he is Irish and therefore quality his grandson in turn.

“My grandfather is the connection. He’s trying to gain his Irish citizenship at the moment and that’s currently with the authorities so right now I’m not actually Irish-qualified. At the time with the U19s, they allowed me to play which was pretty cool.”

O’Conor says any option of moving to Ireland after he had played for the U19s wasn’t right for him at that time in 2013 and he instead progressed into the Wasps academy, before spending time at Bedford, shining at Ealing and earning his move to Bath.

John Muldoon and Pat Lam John Muldoon is now Bristol's defence coach. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

He’s happy following his career in England now and feels Bristol is the perfect place to help him continue his rise as a player.

“It’s a record for tickets sold for a game for Bath, so there’s massive hype around it and everyone is buzzing to get the season kicked off,” says O’Conor.

“To have that many supporters coming to the first game creates that extra bit of excitement around the club.

“Our ambition is to push to the highest level we can. Champions Cup rugby is the highest level, so that’s what we want to do.”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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