How Bristol became the best-run club in the Premier 15s

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How Bristol became the best-run club in the Premier 15s - DALE CHERRY/TELEGRAPH
How Bristol became the best-run club in the Premier 15s - DALE CHERRY/TELEGRAPH

There is probably nobody better placed than Amber Reed to describe the dramatic revolution Bristol Bears Women have undergone.

The 31-year-old joined the club in 2009 and in her 13 seasons she has witnessed her side go from “dark, dingy changing rooms and a physio who dropped in and out” to being fully integrated into Bristol’s High Performance Centre – one of the most sophisticated facilities in English rugby.

Bit by bit, the women received backing from their male colleagues and huge effort was put in by the likes of former women’s general manager Heidi Chapman-Mercer to the point now that Pat Lam, the men’s director of rugby, is name-checked, as is the club’s owner, Steve Lansdown, as having a major influence on this forward-looking approach, whereby the women have full access to men’s coaches and can sit in on meetings.

However, from a results point of view, this season has been transformational. Last season they finished eighth in the Premier 15s out of 10 sides; this season, under new head coach Dave Ward, they won their opening six fixtures and have finished the regular season in third place, setting up a semi-final against Exeter.

The spine of the squad has not changed. The signings of Ward’s wife Abbie – the influential England lock – and fellow Grand Slam-winning scrum-half Leanne Infante from reigning champions Harlequins have boosted the side, but change of personnel has been minimal.

At the start of the season, there were only four full-time professionals – the contracted England players who also include Reed herself and prop Sarah Bern.

They were joined later in the season by a cohort of Welsh players, including national captain Siwan Lillicrap and Elinor Snowsill, who went from part-time to full-time when the Welsh Rugby Union contracted 12 players full-time.

Often the changes in women’s rugby have been described as an evolution rather than a revolution, but between the integration with the men’s side and the results that have followed, there is a sense of something revolutionary happening at Bristol.

One of the striking stories of this side is how Dave Ward coaches his wife. Both laugh that, at the start of the season, some of the younger squad members were not even aware they were a couple, such was the desire to separate work and home life.

However, Dave, who met Abbie when both were playing at Harlequins, admits that being married to a female professional has given him a unique insight into what is needed in the women’s game.

“Everything that Abbie’s been through, we’ve always talked about. Some of it obviously resonates and I’m like, ‘What would you want? What would you need?’”

Abbie Ward hailed the quality of the Bristol setup - DALE CHERRY/TELEGRAPH
Abbie Ward hailed the quality of the Bristol setup - DALE CHERRY/TELEGRAPH

Abbie Ward is cautious not to talk about her husband’s influence too much and he talks about her working with other coaches such as Sean Marsden, the men’s skills coach. However, she firmly believes that the set-up is the best she has been part of.

It is small details that male professionals often take for granted, such as having protein laid out and something as simple as a fridge stocked with milk that she points to, as well as coaching and medical resources.

“Dave signed here as a coach, but there’s no way that I would have signed if I didn’t think it was up to scratch,” says Abbie. “Coming here, seeing that investment, I think is really important because a lot of the time clubs will say, ‘We want to invest X, Y, and Z into the women’, but it doesn’t always translate.

“On my first day here – being introduced to all the men and sitting in their meetings and watching them train and getting crossover with their coaches. I would say this is the most professional and highest-quality set-up I’ve been involved in. And I’d probably say club and internationally.”

'My job is to run the best programme in the country'

One of Bristol Bears Women’s values is to “accommodate”. This is largely due to balancing a mixture of professionals and part-timers.

Both Reed and Abbie Ward talk about feeling a certain degree of “guilt” when they received their full-time England contracts while they play club rugby with players working or studying full time.

Reed says: “Some people have harder days than others, so it’s about understanding and that is something our squad does really well.”

Dave Ward also feels he is attuned to the balancing act many of his players have to go through and says working with Championship side Ampthill prepared him for his first job in the women’s game.

“I can empathise with the girls having been a player-coach at Ampthill - the guys there were going through a lot of the same things. We have our professional players but I have been amazed by the commitment of all the girls. We have a player, Phoebe Murray, a medical student who came to training one day after helping to deliver a baby; that is very inspiring.”

Dave Ward is often asked if he sees his job in the women’s game as a stepping stone to a role in men’s rugby? His answer reflects back to the club’s ambition.

“I think that a few people who see it as a pathway should come and coach women’s rugby. They get it wrong in my view. Now, obviously people can say, ‘He’s just saying this’.

“My job is to run the best programme in the country. Whoever comes in after me. I want them to take over the best women’s programme in the country. If that’s in three, five, 10 years, that’s all I can really ask.”

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