In theory, it was a sound philosophy: invest in world-class talent to build the most star-studded squad in the Premiership, on suitably lucrative contracts, and watch the results roll in.
Yet while Bristol Bears’ top-heavy approach paid handsome dividends last season, this year it has backfired spectacularly. The marquee names are struggling for form and fitness, and the lack of squad depth – sacrificed in favour of star power – has left them cruelly exposed.
The Bears have won just three of their 11 league matches this season, only outperforming beleaguered Bath. They have shown signs of improvement in their last two matches, with Leicester snatching victory in the dying seconds and Exeter forced to work hard for their win last weekend. But the spark that saw them finish top of the regular season last year – a scintillating Charles Piutau break from deep, a ludicrous Semi Radradra offload or a delicate chip from Callum Sheedy – has been missing .
Part of the problem has been absence. Radradra has only played three matches, Steven Luatua has been in and out, and Kyle Sinckler’s game time has been limited by international duty.
But when they have made it onto the field, all three have failed to meet their customary high standards. Understandably Radradra has looked rusty – but that does not excuse losing the ball in contact in every match he has played. Ball security is basic and his inability to maintain possession has undone his initial good work.
A big money recruit from Harlequins, Sinckler has been underwhelming. It is not that the tighthead has played badly, but he has not dominated in the loose or at set-piece in the manner Bristol would have expected from a Lions prop.
Of Bristol’s key men, Piutau and Sheedy have been near ever-present, missing one Premiership match between them. Piutau was once borderline unstoppable, to the extent that one of Bristol’s strike moves was to pass the ball directly to him at first receiver and let chaos ensue as he took the ball to the line. But even the former New Zealand full-back has failed to produce his dazzling best, as the below statistics indicate, and may now join the injury list after limping off in the first half against Exeter.