EletiofeExeter ring changes for top-two meeting but Bristol stick...

Exeter ring changes for top-two meeting but Bristol stick with Semi Radradra


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  • Premiership leaders make 14 changes for match on Tuesday
  • Chiefs’ veteran Phil Dollman will face Radradra at centre

Of Semi Radradra’s superb start to his Bristol career the head coach, Pat Lam, said: ‘The X factor he shows is not a surprise … it’s what he does all the time.’

Of Semi Radradra’s superb start to his Bristol career the head coach, Pat Lam, said: ‘The X factor he shows is not a surprise … it’s what he does all the time.’
Photograph: Steve Feeney/Action Plus/Shutterstock

It is worth pausing for a second to recall that the last time a Bristol v Exeter fixture attracted as much neutral interest was in the Championship 10 years ago. Those who would scrap promotion to the top division might care to study the rise of the Premiership’s current leading duo and reflect on the benefits of embracing those who might go on to challenge the status quo in future.

What a shame no spectators will be allowed inside the 27,000-capacity Ashton Gate for Tuesday night’s summit meeting which the Bears’ director of rugby, Pat Lam, reckons would otherwise have sold out weeks ago. Leaving aside any nagging player welfare misgivings about midweek matches, there is little question it enhances rugby’s visibility and offers an interesting challenge to players and coaches alike.

The only snag is that, with so many held-over games to cram in, the leaders, Exeter, are shorn of the majority of their first-choice starters with Rob Baxter having made 14 starting changes to his lineup following the 32-22 victory at Sale on Friday. The sole survivor is the winger Olly Woodburn with the 11th-hour decision not to risk Jack Nowell prompting a debut for the highly rated England Under-20 full-back Josh Hodge and a switch to outside-centre for the veteran Phil Dollman.

Bristol, however, have gone the other way, sticking with the sensational Semi Radradra in the No 13 jersey – Dollman’s first outing since lockdown will be a busy one – alongside Charles Piutau, Kyle Sinckler, Nathan Hughes, Callum Sheedy and Steven Luatua who have all helped to propel the Bears to seven successive Premiership wins since early January. With an eight-point gap between first and second places with seven regular‑season games remaining, this would appear the hosts’ last chance to try to stop Exeter finishing top of the heap.

The temptation to rev up Radradra and co again, accordingly, has been too much to resist, with Lam comparing the current league placings to a Formula One race as the top six prepare to meet in grid order – first v second, third v fourth, fifth v sixth – inside 26 hours. “As we know in those F1 races the cars placed one to four have a better chance of winning. But it doesn’t mean it is guaranteed and people will overtake you if you’re not on the money. It is a big and exciting round but there is still a lot of rugby to go.”

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Baxter takes a similar view – “Whatever happens won’t define the season for either side” – but there is no hiding from Radradra’s significant early impact not just on flailing opponents but his own teammates, not least during the 33-24 win at Gloucester on Friday.

“What we’re seeing is just a normal day at the office for Semi,” Lam said. “The X factor he shows is not a surprise to me or people who watch him. It’s what he does all the time but the space he had came from the rest of the boys doing their jobs.”

Another secret weapon Lam has been quietly utilising is the coaching brain of his former Northampton and Scotland mentor Ian McGeechan, whom he has invited to come down to Bristol and coach a session. He also rates the on-loan Saracens flanker Ben Earl, a replacement against Exeter, as another reason to be cheerful about English rugby.

“When I used to play I thought England always got it wrong with the sort of back-rowers they were selecting,” Lam said. “They used to pick Lawrence Dallaglio sometimes out of position at No 6 or 7 when New Zealand had guys like Michael Jones or Josh Kronfeld. England now have a wealth of options and are picking some great 7s. World rugby has had an unbelievable explosion of back-rowers for people to aspire to.”

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