Season Review 2018 - 2019
By Ian Todd
July 10 2019

Bristol’s first season back in the Premiership has certainly been one to remember, with Pat Lam’s side finishing ninth in the table, a comfortable 20 points clear of relegation and just five points short of qualifying for the Champions Cup.

The club bolstered their ranks ahead of the new season with signings including All Blacks full back Charles Piutau from Ulster, former All Blacks prop John Afoa from Gloucester Rugby and hooker Harry Thacker from Leicester Tigers.

Bristol got their return season off to the perfect start with home victory against B**h, but the harsh realities of competing in the top division became all too clear with defeats against to Saracens, Gloucester and Northampton Saints within their opening five fixtures.  It was heartening that many losses were by small margins, with the side picking up seven losing bonus points over the league season.  The lowest point of the season was undoubtedly the 52 – 7 loss to Worcester.  Bristol got off to a great start with an early lead when Yann Thomas ran in under the posts.  Madigan converted before Weir put the restart straight into touch.  Thereafter nothing went according to plan for Bristol and everything went right for the hosts who went on to score seven converted tries and a penalty without Bristol ever looking likely to score again.

There were plenty of positives however, beating the likes of Leicester Tigers and Saracens at Ashton Gate either side of a narrow (and somewhat controversial) 31-29 defeat to finalists Exeter.

Bath Rugby's Ruaridh McConnochie and Bristol Bears Chris Vui during The Clash match in the Gallagher

It was an exciting end to the season, drawing 20-20 against Sale Sharks, with a gripping final few minutes seeing two missed penalties from both teams, before a 19-12 win against the relegated Falcons on the final day secured a ninth-placed finish.

And no performance was more important than the opening one, with Bristol getting their Premiership return off to the perfect start with a thrilling 17-10 win over fierce rivals B**h in front of a near capacity crowd of 26,079 at Ashton Gate.  Ian Madigan steered Bristol towards victory with four penalties, but it was Alapati Leiua who won the match with a 73rd-minute try that secured a night to remember for the Bristol faithful.

Just three weeks later, another masterful display from Madigan secured a second successive home victory for Bristol as they edged out Harlequins at a rain-soaked Ashton Gate. Two first-half penalties from Madigan’s right boot cancelled out Danny Care’s early opener to inspire a Bristol comeback, claiming a 20-13 victory over the London side after falling 10-0 down.

Few fans expect to do the double over one of the league’s greatest-ever sides on their return to the top division, but the Bristol managed it against Leicester Tigers.  Harry Thacker’s first-half brace led Bristol to a stunning 41-10 victory at Ashton Gate, before tormenting his former club in the return fixture with a critical late try which saw the Bristol run out 23-20 winners.

But the real stand-out has to be the win over Saracens.  Only six teams all season managed to beat the men in black and Bristol were one of them, again thanks to a late Madigan penalty.

There have been many exceptional performers who played a key role in Bristol’s impressive Premiership return, one of those being lock Chris Vui.  The Samoa captain had a fine campaign, recording 176 carries and 190 and showing that my belief that he is a six not a second-row was nonsense. Another key player was Steven Luatua. The All Black forward made 22 clean breaks, 207 tackles and 177 carries and he was nominated for Gallagher Premiership Player of the Season.

A shoulder injury ruled Luke Morahan out of the final four rounds of the season, but the Australian wing had certainly made his impact before then, topping the side’s league metre charts with an impressive 987 covered in just 16 games.  There were enormous expectations of Charles Piutau at the start of the season.  Despite injury problems, in just 11 Premiership appearances, Piutau crossed for six tries to make him the club’s joint second highest try scorer in the league, but more impressively, he beat 55 defenders in those outings – 10 more than the club’s next highest.  One particularly memorable side-step left an embarrassed Mike Brown floundering in his wake.

New signing Harry Thacker quickly became a fans’ favourite after an outstanding debut season which saw him top the charts in three categories.  The hooker, was the club’s joint leading try scorer, alongside Leiua, with seven. He also topped the charts with 224 carries and 227 tackles in 21 league appearances.

Gloucester's Ollie Thorley is tackled by Bristol's Luke Morahan during the Gallagher Premiership mat

The club has already revealed the signings of England internationals Dave Attwood and Nathan Hughes to bolster their pack ahead of their second Gallagher Premiership season, while Jordan Lay will return to Bristol on a one-year deal.  Young Bristolians George Kloska, Blake Boyland, Jack Bates – along with Clifton College star Ioan Lloyd – will join the integrated Bristol Academy.