When Bristol fly-half Callum Sheedy made his Test debut for Wales last November, he gave his match shirt to the person who transformed his career.
“If I never met Pat I dread to think where I’d be now. Without him I wouldn’t have been anywhere near Test rugby,” Sheedy admits, referring to Bristol Bears’ director of rugby Pat Lam. “I owe my career to him. When he arrived, it wasn’t going anywhere to be honest with you. I can’t speak highly enough of what Pat has done for me on and off the pitch.
Sheedy was “third, fourth-choice” at Bristol when Lam arrived in 2017 and had just returned from a loan spell with Jersey. Four years on, Sheedy is one of the Premiership’s best fly-halves and Bristol are a game away from reaching their first Premiership final, with Harlequins in their way on Saturday.
There has been a name change with the birth of the Bears, a new training ground and no lack of investment in quality players and infrastructure. Yet the single biggest factor in Bristol’s transformation from a club yo-yoing between the top two divisions to the juggernaut of today is the man at the top. Not just because Lam is “ridiculously detailed in the analysis and structures he puts in place”, according to Sheedy, but also Lam’s excellent man-management of his players.
“I could give you 10, 15, 20 examples of boys whose careers were probably going nowhere, and then Pat takes over and now we’re playing in a Premiership semi-final,” Sheedy adds, before outlining Lam’s goal-driven approach.
“I remember the first chat I had with him. I was a nothing here. He didn’t have to even speak to me to be honest. But he called me in, asked what my goals were. I told him I wanted to play international rugby. Probably previous coaches would have laughed at me when I said that and told me ‘you will never do that because you can’t kick, you can’t do that’ and so on. Whereas Pat was the complete opposite. He said: ‘That’s brilliant. You’ve got a goal, now let’s achieve it’.
“He started setting little goals for me. I became part of the leadership group three years ago which was huge for me, in terms of being able to grow as a person and as a voice in the group. He’s made me captain over the years. Little things which make you think ‘jeez, he really does trust me’. When a coach does that, it makes you want to perform.
“He always manages to get the best out of players because he gives them responsibilities, he trusts them. As long as you give him complete buy-in, he will do everything in his power to make you a better player and person.”
This is not Lam’s first renovation project. Bristol might have lacked the necessary direction and structure but had the financial resources in place to build something special when Lam arrived four years ago. Whereas when he took over at Connacht in 2013, the odds were stacked even higher against him. Jake Heenan, the back-row who first met Lam in Auckland as a teenager, followed him to Connacht and then to Bristol.
“It was very much the underdog province, but it almost felt as though it saw itself that way,” Heenan recalls of Connacht when he and Lam arrived in Galway. “You almost got the impression it felt a little bit sorry for itself. I remember a good handful of players, maybe more, guys who wanted to be a professional rugby player but without doing professional rugby player things, which was frustrating. It was a very proud club and wanted to be where it is now, but it had a wee way to go.”
Connacht started slowly, with Heenan recalling they won only one of their first 10 matches, gradually adapting to the enterprising style of rugby Lam pushes his sides to play. “A survival mechanism for a club not doing so well is to play very safe rugby, which as you know Pat doesn’t do, and that was a hard transition. We had to be comfortable playing rugby and scoring tries, not just hanging in there and hoping for a win,” Heenan admits.
Then things clicked. Defeating Toulouse in the Heineken Cup was the catalyst. The ultimate triumph was Connacht’s stunning Pro12 title win over Leinster in 2016. As well as Lam’s ability to connect his players, his tactical acumen shone through.
“One thing Pat does really well – we always had a way to beat a team. We never went into a game thinking ‘s— these guys are good, let’s hope we can hang in there’. We always knew how to beat them,” Heenan adds. “What he achieved at Connacht was exceptional for what he was given. He managed to make a little go a very, very long way.”
According to Heenan, it’s not just Lam’s level of detail with the side on the field but across the whole club which has reinvigorated Bristol. “It’s the way he aligns the club from a commercial point of view, medical point of view, to achieve the same goal. That’s hugely important in any organisation. Anyone from office staff to academy players pulling in the same direction. What’s happening now at Bristol is probably those efforts coming to fruition.”
Could any other director of rugby have pulled off Bristol’s transformation? Neither Sheedy or Heenan are sure. It has been a seismic turnaround in fortunes, with a Challenge Cup title already won but the bigger prizes – the Champions Cup and Premiership title – now in Bristol’s sights, with over 9,000 season tickets sold for next season.
Sheedy explains: “He stripped the whole thing back to give us new targets, new goals, new incentives. Now, it feels like a different club. If Pat didn’t come in, I don’t think we’d be where we are now. Us, as a city, owe Pat a hell of a lot.”