Welcome to Bear country! Checking in with Bristol Bears Women.
Bristol Bears Women have been lighting up the Allianz Premier 15s this season with their swashbuckling attacking play and battling attitude. It’s propelled them up the table and if they continue on this trajectory will see them push into the top four come the playoffs too.
When I was stood pitch side at Twyford Avenue at the end of last season I was taken by the talent in Bristol’s line-up and the fact that whatever they did, it didn’t seem to be clicking for them as Wasps cut through their lines to score time and again. Dave Ward had not long been announced as their next head coach and we were all expecting that his wife (Red Roses lock Abbie Ward) would soon be joining him.
In the end Dave made three key signings, Abbie was joined on her trip west by fellow Quin and Red Rose Leanne Infante and perhaps most shrewdly Hannah West was persuaded to leave Wasps to become a Bear, bringing extra versatility and consistency to their front row. Two key players who had struggled with injuries for the past couple of seasons were fit and firing to add to things too. Sarah Bern is a world class tighthead prop and Amber Reed not only captains the side but adds both physicality and a huge amount of skill to their centres (check out my Instagram for a clip on just what Reed means to this team!). All of these names are key pieces but added to a squad that was largely unchanged from the previous year.
What Bears have also built is a really strong team unity, evident from the moment I joined a zoom call this week with two of their players. Simi Pam, the box-office loosehead who completes Bears all star front row, is always an engaging presence but the addition of Grace Crompton, the fleet footed winger who has recently been making a name for herself in sevens, changed the call completely. The energy level spiked as they greeted each other and throughout the call their support of, and pride in, each other’s achievements was lovely to see.
Simi said it best when she described how being at the club makes her feel “I truly feel safe and happy, comfortable and confident… It’s a place I can let my personality flourish”
Grace is newer to the team, only joining at the latter end of last season but already seen by many as a key part of their future. A natural 7s player with fiery pace and a long stride, she also displays impressive maturity for such a young player. She’s quick to point out that while Ward has added so much the players should be rightfully proud of their own efforts to improve and evolve. “This club made me find my love [for rugby] again. The facilities we are able to use help, they add a sense of professionalism, but ultimately it’s the people who fill it that make it special” she tells me.
Through talking with them both it’s clear that Ward’s arrival was a sea change for the team. It coincided with them moving their training to Bears state of the art new facilities and added an extra layer of professionalism to an already determined group. They’ve also maintained the bonds forged in harder times as the core of the team remained intact.
Clearly then, the club, the team and the players are all in a good place and that’s paying off not only in their league position but in international recognition too. When Simi Pam was announced in the Barbarians squad it sent waves through the women’s rugby world and from the Baabaa’s gear she’s proudly wearing on the call it’s clear she’s still on a high from the experience… and who can blame her, that’s a bucket list experience for anyone who has ever picked up a rugby ball!
At around the same time Grace was called up to the GB7s squad for one of their final outings, with an England 7s contract following in December as she was named among the core group.
Infante, Ward and Bern are all key cogs in the Red Roses machine and Reed is deserving of a return to the side too. Younger players are flourishing, Grace is a prime example, but Jenny Hesketh is another exciting young outside back and in Simi’s injury-enforced absence China Kill has stepped up into a starting role, there is exciting talent emerging all over this team.
A year or more ago a trip to Shaftesbury Park was a bear hunt, but these days teams have to be far more wary, the bear is out of hibernation and if you don’t watch out, you’re liable to get mauled!