The Six Nations always has the potential to derail any side’s domestic campaign.
With the Gallagher Premiership season currently around the halfway point, losing key players to international duty at this stage has proved detrimental to several squads of years gone by.
Additionally, with the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup contested at the dawn of the Premiership campaign, players involved with eventual winners England will have been unavailable for a disconcerting 11 of the opening 14 fixtures.
Even if you possess a squad with the depth that Pat Lam has at his disposal with the Bristol Bears, you are bound to feel the effects of such an exodus of players.
However, whilst it may not have been vintage at times, the Bears remain top of the Premiership pile, with a lead of six points over nearest rivals and champions Exeter Chiefs.
Though modern rugby union is of course a squad game, and whilst Bristol may have lost five bodies to international duty, the capability of players such as Andy Uren, and previously Ioan Lloyd prior to an ankle injury, to seamlessly step in has no doubt softened the blow of losing usual half-back pairing Harry Randall and Callum Sheedy.
Here’s how the international Bears have been performing on the big stage.
Following his return from a two-week ban, Sinckler has been as consistent as ever during a problematic campaign for England.
The prop has won all 13 of his attempted tackles in 2021 so far, and unlike so many of his colleagues in white, is yet to concede a penalty.
Having started both fixtures that he has been available for, against Italy and Wales, the 27-year-old tighthead could leave the field at the Principality with his head held high, despite a crushing defeat for the Red Roses.
Having endured a stop-start to his career in the West Country, Sinckler looked to be picking up his best form for the Bears on the eve of the Six Nations, and Lam will no doubt be hoping that the former Harlequins man remains at full tilt for the looming run-in.
It’s a big day for Max Malins, who is set to make his first international start against France this afternoon.
The impressive Saracens loanee had found minutes tough to come by under Eddie Jones, despite a string of splendid displays on-route to the Bears Challenge Cup triumph in October, crossing over to score in the final.
The versatile 24-year-old no doubt has fierce competition for his place on the pitch, or even the matchday squad, with George Ford, Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly, and Anthony Watson all vying for his preferred roles at fly-half or full-back.
Though Malins did appear for a late five-minute cameo at the conclusion of the opening day defeat to Scotland and earned 15 minutes as a replacement for the injured Jack Willis for the drubbing of Italy at Twickenham.
The dynamic back has a knack for scoring, having touched over nine times in 12 appearances for the Bears, averaging a try every 80 minutes, with nine conversations and one penalty to boot.
Though his future remains uncertain, a star is no doubt emerging in Max Malins.
Akin to his often jested brother, the aforementioned Malins, Ben Earl has been restricted to two substitute appearances for Jones’ side thus far, making up 32 minutes of game time in appearances against Italy and Wales.
The turnover-machine has made seven carries totalling 20 metres during his time on the field, with a tackle success rate of 86%.
Earl too has a knack for bagging tries, with six in just 14 appearances for the Bears, averaging one every 145 minutes of play.
Albeit with different styles, fellow flanker Tom Curry has scored two tries in 1,294 minutes of rugby with Sale Sharks and England this term, averaging at one every 647 minutes.
No doubt Earl offers Jones the option of a direct, threatening carrier from the replacements bench.
You could say that Bristol have missed the energy and drive of the 23-year-old, as they staggeringly failed to score a second-half try in all of February.
Look away now, England fans.
Bristol’s adopted son Callum Sheedy was of course instrumental in the Welsh’s dismissal of England last weekend, the fly-half entering the fray in the second half to notch 13 points as Wayne Pivac’s men sent Jones’ side back over the Severn Bridge whimpering.
Though the 25-year-old is yet to start this tournament as Dan Biggar has been preferred in the outside-half role, it was another impressive and mature substitute appearance for a man who only made his test rugby bow in November.
It felt like a coming of age showing from Sheedy, who is known by those around Ashton Gate for his ability to dictate matches, with a razor-like right boot the shine of his armoury, as the display against England showcased his electrifying talent to a global audience.
Though unlike his English counterparts, Sheedy has been available to Lam’s disposal during the Six nations’ break in play, kicking a late conversion to win the points for the Bears at Sixways last weekend.
Despite that impressive cameo, Sheedy once again finds himself utilised as a replacement for his nation’s trip to Italy.
Following the announcement that Biggar was once again preferred, Pivac stated: ““Where we’re going with the game, the way we’re playing, the way we want to start games when there is a lot of intensity, fresh bodies around, defences are in your face, I think it suits having Dan there for that period.”
For most England fans who adorn the blue of Bristol, this will be the dispiriting one.
Following a glittering man-of-the-match performance as the Bears beat Exeter at Sandy Park in January, the topic of Harry Randall’s international commitments remained on the lips of every rugby fan.
Despite possessing a tinge of a Welsh accent, the 23-year-olds pledge to England was met with glee and pride from the BS3 faithful, who were beginning to finally see the products of the academy’s labour representing their city on the national platform.
Though it hasn’t quite worked out for the diminutive scrum-half.
With Ben Youngs and Dan Robson preferred, Randall failed to make a matchday squad, before being sent back to the south west with an ankle injury, which Pat Lam last week claimed would keep him out of action for around two months.
“The biggest challenge we are going to face is Harry Randall has played no rugby since January 9th, by the time he gets back it is going to be three months of having played no competitive rugby at all,” the Samoan claimed.
“That is going to be his challenge and our challenge to get him back.”