By Ali Stokes
After considerable amounts of thumb twiddling and teeth grinding in anticipation this summer, Friday night will mark the start of what is set to be one of the most fiercely contested Premiership Rugby seasons in recent memory. League returnees Bristol will kick-off a freshly re-branded competition against local rivals Bath at an Ashton Gate Stadium expected to be near capacity.
One man keen to dispel the usual low expectations placed upon newly promoted side is Bristol Bears hooker Harry Thacker, who made the move south from the Midlands to the West Country over the summer.
He said: "I think you'd be silly to underestimate us. We're here to compete, we've got some class players here and we're ready to go. It's a great atmosphere. It's a good group of boys and people tend to say that a lot in interviews, but coming down, they've really welcomed me in. It's fun, it's a healthy environment to be in and I think that breeds a very good culture in training."
The former England u20 international was also full of praise for Pat Lam's ability to gel squad.
Paying tribute to the former Samoa Head Coach, Thacker said: "I think he [Lam] has got his own style, one thing I've seen just being here a month or two is that he knows how to bring a team together, in the culture that he's built and facilitated for us to get to know each other on a deeper level than just teammates, actually being friends. He created a hell of a culture and an environment where everyone wants to work towards a similar goal and work towards helping each other out and performing.
"There are a few little games that we play, he keeps it fun and entertaining. A few boys signing songs for fines, he keeps the mind going with something fresh, something new and someone different to laugh about."
When asked whether Lam's style of play suits his own brand of attacking, running rugby more appropriately than the Leicester system that seemed so reluctant to afford the front-rower game time, Thacker asserted his eagerness to perform for a side that would value his exciting skill set higher than most other Premiership sides.
"Yeah, his style of play, 1-15 he wants everyone to have a similar skill set and be able to put passes in under pressure and have a decent skill set that might get ignored by other teams. No matter what number on your back you need to execute skills under pressure. I'm enjoying playing under his system."
Bristol kick-off the inaugural Gallagher Premiership season against Bath this Friday evening at 7:45pm. Keep an eye out for our usual weekly team lineups, kick-off times and TV listing updates every Friday afternoon.
For breaking news and the latest insight and analysis follow Crashball Rugby on Twitter and Facebook. Click on the icons below to find us.