Ian Madigan: Bristol set sights on Champions Cup after promotion to Aviva Premiership
The newly renamed Bristol Bears may have gained promotion back to the Aviva Premiership but the champagne is firmly on ice until they get among the elite of Europe in the Champions Cup, according to fly-half Ian Madigan.
Having spent a year in Bordeaux, the Dubliner signed a three-year deal at Bristol last summer and spear-headed their promotion back to the Aviva Premiership. But after securing promotion last weekend, Pat Lam's side have their sights set on bigger things than survival in England's top flight.
"On day one Pat came in and made it clear, the process of where we want to get to. The Championship was part of that but ultimately we are part of a grand plan at Bristol and we have been building towards being a sustainable Premiership side.
"It isn't like we've been drinking champagne since we found out the news [of promotion] over the weekend. It was goal number one but while it is a good achievement to get promoted, we are very much building towards being a Champions Cup team.
"That is our goal. It is not resting on our laurels and happy to be back in the Premiership. It is being back, performing and building something that is going to be sustainable which is something Bristol have struggled to do over the last 10 years."
After a disappointing season in France, the switch to Bristol has restored Madigan to full-fitness and a renewed confidence has taken hold of the 30-timed Ireland Test capped player.
"From a fitness standpoint, getting back to full fitness, the move has been brilliant. From a playing standpoint, I feel my confidence is back. Getting in under Pat, learning his game plan and going out and executing as best as I can, has been really enjoyable.
"It was difficult, like any change. I was at Leinster for eight or nine years, I was pretty settled there. You have a fair idea what you are getting yourself in for when you are going into pre-season. You see the same faces. You've got your own family and friends within your network in Dublin.
"So moving to France and experiencing a different pre-season there, meeting nearly 50 new players in a new squad and try and do your best to impress them and having to do it again the following season, certainly was challenging. But it is was really worthwhile. It was a big decision to leave Ireland and a big decision again to leave France. But I feel I've made the right decision both times."
After experiencing the close to 12 month rugby cycle in France, where the players to physio ratio can be as high as 20:1 -- as opposed to 10:1 in Britain and Ireland -- Madigan feels a higher emphasis is put on and resources put into strength and conditioning.
He has likened the influence of Lam at Bristol to that of Joe Schmidt and Matt O'Connor who he played under at Ireland and Leinster.
"Talking to the Connacht guys, it was clear how highly they thought of him and playing against Connacht with Leinster you saw what a difficult side they were to attack against and what a frustrating side they were to defend against because you felt you couldn't get the ball off them.
"Coming over to Bristol I really feel that I have been taught again, which is the first time in a while that that has happened.
"The feedback that Pat gives on a daily basis, matches or training, has been really good for me and it is something I had under Joe Schmidt and Matt O'Connor and that ultimately that was when I was playing my best rugby. I feel really valued within the team and the fantastic support base."
He is signed on for two more seasons and will be joined by the likes of Charles Piutau and former Ireland and Connacht backrow John Muldoon next season. While he plays away from Ireland, he will be ineligble to represent his native country due to Schmidt's policy of only picking home-based players, but he hasn't given up on wearing green again.
"I don't think there is any Irish player who has given up on their international aspirations before they've retired and I'm certainly not going to set a precedent," Madigan said who admitted for a while it was hard looking in from the outside.
"When you are not part of something that you were part of it is difficult to be on the outside looking in but overtime that does get easier and I have found this year I am very much a Leinster and Irish supporter, I was cheering the guys on in the Six Nations.
"The English have their soccer teams that they support and Leinster are very much the team I've always supported since I was five years of age. They will always be my team as such but one of my long term goals would be to continue playing as well as I can to try and make sure Bristol want to re-sign me."