|Full name||Bristol Rugby Club|
|Ground(s)||Ashton Gate Stadium (Capacity: 27,000)|
|Director of Rugby||Pat Lam|
The club was founded as Bristol Football Club in 1888; between 1921 and 2014 Bristol's home matches were played at the Memorial Ground and since 2014 Bristol plays its home matches at Ashton Gate Stadium in the south-west of the city. The current head coach is Pat Lam who was appointed in 2017.
Bristol Football Club was formed in 1888 when the Carlton club merged with rival club Redland Park to create a united Bristol team. Westbury Park having refused to merge then folded and many of its players subsequently joined Bristol. The County Cricket Ground at Nevil Road was leased for home matches.
The first match was a heavy away defeat to Cardiff and although the first season was relatively successful the second was not with only three games won. The club went from strength to strength over the next few years under the captaincy of W. Tommy Thomson. It turned the corner and in 1891–92, now wearing the more familiar navy and white hooped shirts, the Bristol team won 20 games out of 24.
Over the ensuing seasons the fixture list went from strength to strength, consisting of most of the top English and Welsh sides. In 1900 J. W. Jarman became Bristol's first England cap. Two major touring sides played Bristol during this period. The first New Zealand All Blacks defeated the club 41–0 in 1905 and in 1909 a combined Bristol and Clifton RFC team, captained by Percy Down, lost to Australia 11–3.
The club was beginning to bring on a new generation of players when the First World War halted all rugby. After the war a Bristol United side was formed to provide rugby for returning servicemen and this led to the rebirth of Bristol in 1919. The County Ground was no longer available for home games so the club rented a field at Radnor Road, Horfield although occasional matches were staged at the Bristol City and Bristol Rovers grounds. The Radnor Road seasons were good ones for the club and a new crop of stars appeared.
The Memorial Ground stadium was built on an area of land called Buffalo Bill's Field which was previously occupied by allotments in 1921. Bristol defeated Cardiff 19–3 in the opening match in front of a large crowd.
The fiftieth anniversary was celebrated in 1938 but the next few years saw a fall in performances and the final inter-war season was a poor one. During World War II a Bristol Supporters team kept rugby union going in the city. Thus Bristol had readily available players when peacetime rugby union resumed in 1945.
The playing record in the early fifties was mixed, but there was a huge improvement under the captaincy of first Bert MacDonald, and then Dick Hawkes. Records were broken in 1956–57 and even better was to follow in what has been called 'The Blake Era'.
Fly half John Blake became captain in 1957 and under his leadership the club developed an entertaining running style of rugby involving backs and forwards, which was years ahead of its time. The Bristol club set and broke new records for wins in a season and points scored and goal kicking forward Gordon Cripps rewrote the individual points scoring records.
The 75th anniversary was celebrated in 1962–63 and floodlights were installed in the following season. Club form peaked in 1965–66 under Derek Neate's captaincy when 39 games were won, and again in 1971–72 under Tony Nicholls. This was the club's best ever season with a thousand points being scored for the first time and the team being crowned unofficial English and Anglo-Welsh champions.
Under Mike Rafter's captaincy, the club won the John Player Cup in 1983, defeating Leicester 28–22. During this period Alan Morley established a world record of 479 tries in senior rugby. The centenary season with Nigel Pomphrey as captain was celebrated in style with a game against the Barbarians and a narrow defeat in the cup final.
1998–99 (Premership Two)
Relegation to Premiership Two in 1998 was not the worst of Bristol's problems. Only an eleventh hour rescue by Malcolm Pearce saved the club from potential oblivion. Bristol also lost control of the Memorial Stadium Company to Bristol Rovers and were tenants thereafter until their eventual departure from the stadium at the conclusion of the 2013–14 season. Bristol's first season outside the top flight brought with it a number of first-time visits to clubs. Bristol went on to win the Premiership Two title and promotion back to Premiership One, sealing the win with a 22–11 victory over Worcester.
The World Cup disrupted the early part of the 1999–00 season, with a number of players missing the first few games. Under the captaincy of Dean Ryan the team finished sixth, just missing out on European Cup qualification. At the end of the season Dean Ryan took over as Head Coach from Bob Dwyer. After an opening day victory over newly promoted Rotherham, Bristol had a disappointing 2000–01 season finishing ninth. Off the field, Jack Rowell became managing director, and successful community initiatives saw the attendance figures rise. Chief Executive Nicholas de Scossa was involved in debates about top clubs separating from the Rugby Football Union and forming a new Premier League.
The 2001–02 season brought a new name, Bristol Shoguns, following a five-year £2-million sponsorship deal with Mitsubishi Motors. The Shoguns finishing the season with the most bonus points in the Zurich Premiership, three players in the top try scorers chart, a place at Twickenham in the final of the play-offs (the year before winning the play-offs constituted winning the English title), and also a place in the Heineken Cup for the 2002–03 season. In the close season Head Coach Dean Ryan moved to Gloucester, Jack Rowell resigned as Director of Rugby whilst skipper Jason Little retired. Peter Thorburn took over as coach. League results were mixed, but there were more wins than defeats including a first ever league win away at Bath. At Christmas 2002 owner Malcolm Pearce announced that he would quit at the end of the season. Rumours circulated that Bristol could be sold to Firoz Kassam and play out of Oxford, and a merger with rivals Bath had been mooted. Neither event came to pass, but Bristol were relegated at the end of the season as off-field distractions took their toll.
Before the start of the 2003–04 season Martin Haag and a week later Richard Hill joined as first team coach and head coach respectively. While the board were raising money to stabilise the club Haag and Hill implemented a 'three-year plan' to rebuild Bristol and put them back in the Premiership. They won National League One the following year and were promoted.
The club's deal with Mitsubishi expired in July 2005, and the club started 2005–06 in the Premiership as Bristol RFC. Bristol elected to play two 2006–07 games at Ashton Gate, home of football side Bristol City. The local derby against Bath and the game against Leicester were moved from the 11,750 capacity Memorial Stadium to Ashton Gate's 21,500 capacity to allow more fans the chance to watch the team. The precedent for this was established for a crucial relegation fixture against Bath in May 2003. Bristol finished third in the league, securing a Heineken Cup place for only the second time, and then reached the semi-finals of the play-offs, losing 26–14 at Leicester. Martin Haag was released as Bristol's forwards coach in June 2007 and replaced by John Brain.
Bristol could not replicate the success of the previous season and ended the 2007–08 season in 9th place. They also failed to progress from their Heineken Cup group, despite a home win against Stade Français. The following season Bristol struggled, winning only two games, and were relegated from the premiership. Richard Hill stepped down as coach in February 2009, with two months and eight games of the season remaining. Paul Hull took over as Bristol's head coach.
Following a failed attempt to immediately return to the Premiership, losing to Exeter Chiefs in the final of the play-offs, a number of first team players quit the club and financial pressures caused significant worries at the club once more. With a more modest squad of players, Bristol struggled to find winning form in the 2010–11 season finishing eighth in the championship and failing to reach the playoff finals. In 2011, following a lack of success Paul Hull in mutual agreement with club left Bristol Rugby and was replaced by academy coach Liam Middleton. In Middleton's first full season in charge Bristol finished top of the championship table but failed to progress to the play-off finals, losing to Cornish Pirates in the semi-finals. From the 2008–09 season businessman Stephen Lansdown financed Bristol Rugby, this only became public knowledge when Lansdown formalised his ownership of the club in 2012.
In the 2012–13 season Bristol missed out on the play-off finals, finishing fifth in the championship. At the end of the 2012–13 season it was announced that former Ospreys head coach Sean Holley would join Bristol Rugby as the first team coach. Andy Robinson joined Bristol Rugby as director of rugby in March 2013, at first working with head coach Liam Middleton but following a poor run of results Middleton was sacked by the club following an internal review later in March 2013.
The 2013–14 season brought a return to form with Bristol Rugby finishing top of the championship table. However, Bristol failed to secure promotion to the premiership, losing both legs of the play-off finals to London Welsh. In the close season a number of players were signed to the club in expectation of promotion for the 2014–15 season, including Samoan Internationals Anthony Perenise Jack Lam & David Lemi, Welsh internationals Matthew Morgan, Ian Evans, Ryan Jones and Dwayne Peel and Wing George Watkins return from Cardiff Blues mid season. Further signings for the 2014–15 season would feature Gareth Maule, Jack O'Connell, Darren Hudson and Gavin Henson.
Bristol Rugby moved from the Memorial Stadium to Ashton Gate Stadium, the home of Bristol City Football Club. Ashton Gate Stadium had a capacity of 21,497. In the run-in to the end of season play-off's the club signed high-profile players in Hooker Ross McMillan, Italian Centre Tommaso Benvenuti and Welsh international Gavin Henson. End of the season saw the departure of Forwards Coach Danny Wilson to Cardiff Blues. The Club again failed to earn promotion to the Premiership for the 2015–16 season losing by one point to Worcester Warriors in the Play-off Finals. At the end of the season Wales international fly half Nicky Robinson leaves the club to take up a fresh challenge in France with Oyonnax.
Much of the squad from the previous season remained with Andy Robinson bolstering his options for the new campaign by signing ex-England winger Tom Varndell. On 4 February it was announced that New Zealander Mark Bakewell would replace Borthwick. The new year saw the announcement that Matthew Morgan to further his international chances was to be leaving the club at the end of the season and joining Danny Wilson at Cardiff Blues. However, Bristol were able to clinch promotion to Aviva Premiership with a 60–47 aggregate win over Doncaster.
February 2016 saw the signing of Wales International scrum half Rhodri Williams from Scarlets for the 2016–17 season. Tusi Pisi signed for the club from Japan's Sunwolves Super Rugby franchise in March. Head Coach Sean Holley resigned from his position at the club. Former Welsh Internationals Jonathan Thomas appointed first team Defence Coach & Dwayne Peel Backs and Skills Coach. Further signings include USA International Centre Thretton Palamo from Saracens and Tongan International Prop Forward Soane Tonga'uiha from French side Oyonnax.
November 2016 saw the sacking of Director of Rugby Andy Robinson due to poor results and 'lost confidence' from the board. Club stalwart and top points scorer Mark Tainton was appointed interim head coach for the remainder of the season. Further signings announced by club included Siale Piatau from Sunwolves, Irish international lock forward Dan Tuohy, All Black international scrum half Alby Matthewson and Shane Geraghty from London Irish.
On New Year's Day, 2017, Varndell equalled Mark Cueto's premiership tries record of 90 tries by scoring against Sale Sharks. This followed a hat-trick in the previous week against Worcester Warriors. On 10 February Varndell became the leading try scorer in the Aviva Premiership when he scored against Harlequins at Ashton Gate.
Ultimately, Bristol finished bottom of the Premiership in their returning year, having been relegated with 2 weeks to go after a 21-36 loss against Wasps at Ashton Gate. They finished 12th with only 3 wins and 20 accumulated points, 13 behind 11th placed Worcester Warriors. Their three victories involved beating Worcester 28-20 at Ashton Gate, beating Sale 23-24 at the AJ Bell, and dramatically defeating longstanding rivals Bath Rugby 12-11 at home. Following their relegation, several notable signings moved away from the club, including Jason Woodward to Gloucester Rugby and Gavin Henson to Newport Gwent Dragons.
On 5 December 2016, it was announced that Pat Lam would become the new Head Coach for Bristol Rugby after leaving the Irish region Connacht ahead of the 2017-18 season. Notable signings ahead of the new season were Australian International Luke Morahan from Western Force and All Black Steven Luatua from Blues.
Bristol secured promotion in the 2017-18 RFU Championship with two games to spare on 7 April 2018 and ultimately finished top with only one defeat at the hands of Jersey Reds on 4 March 2018. Bristol finished 20 points ahead of Ealing Trailfinders and a further 15 points ahead of third placed Bedford Blues. The scrapping of the promotion playoffs that season meant that the team at the top of the table after the regular season was promoted. This greatly played into the club's hands as the playoffs have dramatically turned against them in the past; in the 2009–10, 2011–12, 2013–14 and 2014-15 seasons, Bristol finished first in the table, only to be eliminated by Exeter Chiefs, Cornish Pirates, London Welsh and Worcester Warriors respectively, three of whom secured promotion instead.
On 1 June 2018, Bristol Rugby was re-branded as the Bristol Bears following their return to the Premiership.
The club announced a raft of new signings including the All Blacks full back Charles Piutau from Ulster Rugby, former All Blacks Prop John Afoa from Gloucester Rugby and Hooker Harry Thacker from Leicester Tigers.
The opening match of the 2018–19 Premiership Rugby season was against fierce rivals Bath Rugby at Ashton Gate. A crowd of over 26,000 watched Bristol Bears run out 17-10 victors over their old foe. The winning try was scored by Alapati Leiua with four penalties scored by Irish International fly half Ian Madigan. Bristol finished the season in 9th place including nine victories (one over Bath, Harlequins, Northampton Saints, Gloucester and Saracens and two over Leicester Tigers and Newcastle Falcons).
In Europe, Bristol were drawn in Pool 4 of the Challenge Cup with the other teams being Stade Rochelais, Zebre and Yenisey-STM Krasnoyarsk. On 15 December 2018, Bristol recorded a surprise win over Stade Rochelais in a 3-13 at the Stade Marcel-Deflandre through a try by forward Jordan Crane and a dogged defensive display. They finished third in their group before losing 39-15 to Stade Rochelais in the quarter finals, ending their run in the tournament.
Bristol have signed England internationals Nathan Hughes and Dave Attwood in advance of the 2019/2020 season. They both started the season strongly and had a huge contribution in the wins vs Bath and Exeter at the beginning of the season. On 29th November, it was confirmed that the Bears would be signing Semi Radradra ahead of the 2020/21 season, joining on a 3 year deal from Bordeaux Bègles, creating one of the most dangerous back three in Rugby Union, alongside Charles Piutau and Luke Morahan.
Summary of Bristol's league positions since league rugby was introduced in 1987.
|Season||League||League position||End of season|
|1990–91||Courage League||11th (of 13)||n/a|
|1991–92||Courage League||10th (of 13)||n/a|
|1992–93||Courage League||6th (of 13)||n/a|
|1993–94||Courage League||4th (of 10)||n/a|
|1994–95||Courage League||6th (of 10)||n/a|
|1995–96||Courage League||6th (of 10)||n/a|
|2009–10||Championship||1st||Lost the playoff final to Exeter|
|2010–11||Championship||8th||Finished bottom of promotion play-off group.|
|2011–12||Championship||1st||Lost the playoff semi-final to Cornish Pirates|
|2013–14||Championship||1st||Lost the playoff final to London Welsh|
|2014–15||Championship||1st||Lost the playoff final to Worcester|
|2015–16||Championship||1st||Won the playoff final in aggregate against Doncaster Knights|
Note: Flags indicate national union as has been defined under WR eligibility rules. Players may hold more than one non-WR nationality.
The Bristol Bears Academy squad is:
Note: Flags indicate national union as has been defined under WR eligibility rules. Players may hold more than one non-WR nationality.
First Team Coaching
|1986 - 1989||Bob Hesford||
|1989 - 1990||Colin McFadyean||Pilkington Cup Quarter Finalists 1990|
|1990–1992||Rob Cunningham||Pilkington Cup Quarter Finalists 1992|
|1996–1998||Darryl Jones||Pilkington Cup Quarter Finalists 1996|
|2008–2011||Paul Hull||British and Irish Cup champions 2011|
|2011–2013||Liam Middleton||British and Irish Cup Quarter Finalists 2013|
|2017–||Pat Lam||Greene King IPA Championship Champions 2017/2018 - Promoted to Gallagher Premiership 2018/19|
Notable players to have played for the club include:
There are several former Bristol Rugby players currently playing at other top flight clubs: