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Bristol Bears: BTSport.com's Gallagher Premiership 2019/20 season preview

Bristol Bears will be eyeing a top-half finish as the West Countrymen look to build on a promising first season back in the Gallagher Premiership.

Last season's Gallagher Premiership finish: 9th (W9 D1 L12 - Pts 51)

This season's target: A top-six finish is not beyond the realms of possibility

Last season's top try scorer: Alapati Leiua & Harry Thacker (7)

Odds to win the Premiership: 50/1 (odds correct at time of writing)

First four fixtures: Bath (H) Harlequins (A), Sale (H), Exeter (A)

Transfers in: Nathan Hughes (Wasps), Dave Attwood (Bath), Toby Fricker (Ebbw Vale), Jordan Lay (Ospreys), Nicky Thomas (Ospreys), Max Lahiff (Bath), Tyrese Johnson-Fisher (Coastal Carolina Chanticleers)

Transfers out: Nick Haining (Edinburgh), Jack Tovey (Ealing Trailfinders), Jack Lam (released), Nick Fenton-Wells (retired), Tusi Pisi (Toyota Industries Shuttles), George Smith (retired), Joe Latta (Suntory Sungoliath/Otago), Sione Faletau (Yorkshire Carnegie), Reiss Cullen (Doncaster Knights), Ehize Ehizode (Chinnor)

Never want to miss an Bristol game? You can watch live matches all season long in the Gallagher Premiership, Premiership Rugby Cup and European Rugby Challenge Cup on BT Sport. If you’re not yet a subscriber, find out how we can get you signed up in just 15 minutes.

Read on for BTSport.com's in-depth Bristol season preview, or check out more from our exclusive series:

Bath | Bristol Bears | Gloucester | Harlequins | Leicester Tigers | London Irish | Northampton Saints | Saracens | Sale Sharks | Wasps | Worcester Warriors

Join now to watch Gallagher Premiership Rugby all season long on BT Sport

The story of last season

Returning to the top flight of English rugby, Bristol Bears comfortably secured safety for another season with a ninth-place finish. 

Pat Lam's side finished 20 points clear of relegation and just five points shy of qualifying for the Heineken Champions Cup in an impressive campaign that saw the Bears claim a number of big-name scalps.

Ahead of the start of the season, the Bears boosted their squad with the arrival of New Zealand duo John Afoa and Charles Piutau to raise hopes that the newly-promoted outfit could secure a top-six finish.

After getting off to the perfect start with victory over West-Country rivals Bath in their opening game, that result was followed up by six defeats in their next seven matches to raise fears of a second relegation in three years.

An impressive 41-10 win over Leicester Tigers on December 1st was the club's first league win since August, a result that saw Bristol pull away from the drop-zone. 

Arguably the high point of the season came in April as the Bears recorded shock wins over Leicester Tigers and Saracens in successive weeks. 

In front of a packed crowd at Ashton Gate, fly-half Ian Madigan drilled a last-minute penalty to seal a first league win over defending champions Saracens since 2008. 

A week later Lam's men improved on that feat, narrowly seeing off the Tigers at Welford Road to record a league double over Leicester for the first time in the club's history. 

Former Tiger Harry Thacker was on hand to haunt his former club, bagging a brace of tries to help ensure the Bears finished the 2018/19 season on a high.

Hopes for this season

Bristol's hopes for the new season are partly pinned on the success of their marquee signing, Nathan Hughes. 

The giant number eight, who has been capped 20 times for England, will make his debut for the Bears against Bath on Friday night nine months after he put pen to paper on a three-year-deal at Ashton Gate. 

After six years at Wasps, Hughes is relishing the chance to get his teeth into a new challenge. 

“We’re already looking forward to that first game against Bath – not a bad way to start against the local rivals in front of a big crowd," he said ahead of Friday night's Premiership curtain-raiser.  

"I think everyone’s looking forward to that game – the whole community. But before the big Friday night game, we’ve got to make sure we’re all ready to go,” 

Hughes' arrival means Bristol have a thrilling mix of experience and young talent to make a case for a top-six finish this season.

Young Bristolians George Kloska, Blake Boyland and Jack Bates have all been tipped for success and could make their first-team bow this season. 

Rugby World Cup absentees

James Lay, Jordan Lay, Chris Vui, Alapati Leiua and Siale Piutau.

Key man: Charles Piutau

The electrifying New Zealand-born back should be fit and raring to go despite an Achilles injury that has seen him miss Bristol's first few Premiership Rugby Cup games.

The former Ulster full-back missed the opening months of the 2018/19 season, contributing to Bristol's poor start to the season that saw them win just one game in seven, but the 27-year-old is expected to feature at Ashton Gate on Friday.

When on form, there are few better attacking weapons in world rugby than Piutau and Lam will be hoping the All Black international can produce the kind of performances that persuaded Bristol to make him the Premiership's highest-paid player.

One to watch: Harry Randall

The rookie scrum-half enjoyed a breakout season with the Bears, scoring spectacular solo tries against Leicester and Newcastle Falcons. 

A graduate of Hartpury college, the former Gloucester nine represented England at the U20s Junior World Championships and has already been tipped for international recognition at senior level.

His swift service, darting runs, clever kicking and astute reading of the game has also earned him glowing praise from England head coach Eddie Jones.

With Ben Youngs, Will Heinz and Danny Care all in their thirties, don't be surprised to see the 21-year-old in England's post-World Cup plans.

Upcoming Premiership fixtures live on BT Sport

18/10/2019 - Bristol Bears v Bath (7pm, BT Sport 1 HD and Ultimate)

10/11/2019 - Exeter Chiefs v Bristol Bears (2.30pm, BT Sport 1 HD)

27/12/2019 - Bristol Bears v Wasps (7.45pm kick off)

Find out all of our games chosen for live coverage across the first eight rounds, with 22 matches being shown on TV before the end of 2019.

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