nspiration comes in different forms. At Bristol Bears’ extraordinary new £11.5m high-performance centre (the term “training ground” does not do it justice) even the view from the pitchside gym windows is uplifting, out past the distant tree-tops to Avonmouth and beyond. It serves as a daily reminder to the players, local or otherwise, of the passionate rugby city they represent.
There are also plenty of motivational slogans on the walls to remind everyone that wearing a Bears jersey should never be taken for granted. Even before you reach the stunning indoor pitch facility and state-of-the art weights room, complete with iPads for inputting players’ latest workout data, it is clear Bristol are boldly going where no British rugby club has ever ventured before.
And the most remarkable aspect of all? None of it is remotely as impressive as the human being at the heart of the enterprise. Bristol still have a way to go before Pat Lam’s vision is fully realised but, as they prepare to resume their interrupted Premiership season against Saracens at Ashton Gate on Saturday afternoon, a morning in Lam’s company is enough to make anyone aim a little higher.
Not everyone will be aware, for example, that everything Bristol are doing is underpinned by the spirit and example of Sonny Lam, Pat’s octogenarian father. Sonny’s own dad was one of 23 children and, until the age of 19, he was brought up by his grandparents in Samoa. Brown-skinned islanders from poor backgrounds, particularly in the 1960s, had to take whatever low-paid building work they could get but Sonny was determined to better himself. In addition to extending the family home from a three- to a six-bedroom property in his spare time, he took an additional job as a kitchen hand for Air New Zealand. Later he enrolled in night school and trained as a pastry chef, eventually becoming one of the country’s best.
Dedication, sacrifice, love, respect, family – they are everything to Lam, which is why he was so offended when, as Blues coach in Auckland eight years ago, he heard the squad’s racial mix blamed for his team’s poor run of form. “People were saying Pacific Islanders could only play in certain positions and couldn’t coach. All that stuff was going on and I just laughed at it. The problem was my parents. They’d been through the struggle. They listened to all that stuff and found it very difficult.
“That’s why I got emotional when I was asked about that at a press conference. I knew what my Dad’s journey had been like. Pacific Islanders were seen as working class, they were supposed to adhere to that.” His tearful media appearance, however, was seized upon in certain quarters as a sign of weakness. “I remember saying to somebody: ‘This is going to be blown up.’ Sure enough the following day – boom! – there it was: ‘Pat Lam can’t handle the pressure.’
Everything Lam has subsequently achieved since his Blues sacking, not least steering unfashionable Connacht to the Pro12 title in 2016, has exposed such prejudice for the fallacy it is. As a former primary school teacher and a man of faith, the 51-year-old has always had a strong sense of purpose but there is also a quiet desire to prove skin colour is absolutely no barrier to success, in rugby or anywhere else.
Small wonder prop Kyle Sinckler and wing Semi Radradra, among others, feel comfortable joining Lam’s cultural revolution, which has also been inspired by one of cinema’s all-time action heroes. “I’m a big fan of Rocky movies,” Lam says, happy to discuss why Sylvester Stallone is now a Bristol talisman. “Remember Rocky had humble beginnings, became really good, got the flash things and went poor.” One swanky building, consequently, will not distract Lam’s Bristol from what really matters. “To me, if you don’t have everything you can still achieve great things. Alternatively you can have it all and not achieve because you’re not doing the work. Do the work and bigger things can happen over a longer period of time.”
If the billionaire-deep pockets of the club’s owner Stephen Lansdown also clearly help, Lam argues that, fundamentally, the bigger picture has not changed. “It’s not a case of us now aiming higher. We’ve aimed higher right from day one. I set out a five-year plan and this year it was a minimum of top six. Next year it changes to top four. But the plan doesn’t change; all this building does is enhance and accelerate it.
“You don’t build a facility and say you’re going to win everything. It’s not about that. This is a lovely building but what brings it alive is what happens in here. That’s why I wanted this to be called a high-performance centre. Not a training ground, not just somewhere where we can play some rugby and might win a few games.
“When I do reviews, everything is about high performance. If we’re not on our way there people will be challenged, including myself. If I don’t perform I’m gone. It’s happened to me before and I realised it was because I allowed others not to perform. Everyone now has to step up. Stephen Lansdown has made it very clear; there are no excuses now. At some clubs the CVC money [the private equity firm that invested in the Premiership in 2018] has already gone on players. This building is a statement to say the Bears are going to be here for many years.”
It is another reason why the resumption of the 2019-20 season is so potentially compelling. Can Bristol really leapfrog everyone, with Radradra, Sinckler and full-back Charles Piutau running amok and their on-loan Saracens, back-row Ben Earl and fly-half Max Malins, offering a further new dimension? The Bears will be worth watching, at the very least.
Lam, either way, will be reminding everyone that whinging about empty stadia, fixture congestion or Covid is a complete waste of energy. “What are you going to do about it? Complain or get on with it? If you do something about it, things will work out better for you.
“I’ve always been a glass half-full person. Tough times don’t last. When I turned 50 I said to everyone: ‘I’m in the best place in my life.’ In my mid-30s I’d won two championships as a coach and thought that was great. I look back now and that was terrible. I hadn’t been through all the experiences I’ve now been through. When you go through tough times and come out the other end you realise” ‘I feel better for that.’” For Bristol, proud ambassadors of an ethnically-diverse city on the rise, the horizon has never looked so enticing.