It is easy to identify a happy rugby player. Usually they are the ones who are winning games and, crucially, being properly fed as well. Some fine meals must be emerging from the kitchen currently being shared by Semi Radradra and Nathan Hughes to judge from the broad smiles and turbo-charged form of the Fijian-born pair seeking to squash Waspson Saturday and serve up a first Premiership final for their adopted Bristol Bears.
The pair’s weekly menu certainly sounds eligible for a Michelin star. Lamb curries and Fijian kokoda (a raw fish salad) are regular favourites and the title of head chef remains hotly contested. “It’s difficult to say,” says Hughes. “If it’s Fijian food I’d give it to him but if it’s Chinese I’ll take that because I’ve got Chinese heritage on my mum’s side of the family.”
What is not in dispute is there must be plenty of it: the Pacific island duo collectively tip the scales at 231kg.
They also play for a side with a growing appetite for trophies. With a place already secured in the European Challenge Cup final against Toulon next Friday, Bristol stand 80 minutes away from a first major Twickenham final for 36 years. “We’ve been creating a lot of history this season and there’s more to come,” says Hughes, taking a break from cookery chat to consider whether the Bears might be rising to the boil at just the right moment.
It helps everyone, clearly, to have Radradra’s rare quality in their midst. Living in the same house as the world’s best player – whose family are due to join him in the West Country shortly – has further enhanced Hughes’s opinion of the destructive centre. “We used to watch him on the TV when he played in the NRL. To be able to say ‘I’ve played with Semi Radradra’ is amazing. He’s a wonderful player and everyone would love him in their team but we’re the fortunate ones.”
Bristol are also relieved to have 29-year-old Hughes in their team, rather than have him rush headlong at them. For six years the No 8 was at Wasps, helping them reach the 2017 Premiership final against Exeter, which went to extra time. At his best he gives sides an extra ball-carrying dimension, particularly if they tailor their game to his strengths. England, for whom he earned 22 caps between 2016-19, were unbeaten in the 12 Tests they played at Twickenham involving Hughes but never quite maximised his talents. At the Bears he has been enjoying more freedom.
To listen to Hughes on the subject is to be reminded of the importance of knowing how to make certain players tick. “Pat Lam is one of a kind as a coach. He knows how to get the best out of people and I’m playing some of the best rugby I’ve played. He comes to me and says: ‘You play rugby because you’ve got talent. Go and show it, never hold back.’ It’s not just me. He makes sure no one takes their foot off the pedal. You can tell it’s working by the results. I’m so glad and pleased I’m part of this history-making team.”
If it sounds like he was glad to leave Wasps, that is not how he felt. “Don’t get me wrong I was happy with Wasps but, after six years, it was the right time for a fresh start.”
Among the things he enjoys most about his new environment are the post-game debrief sessions. “Every week after a game Pat encourages us all to go into his office and talk about our game. You come in with three positive things you did in and three work-ons. When you come to the next game, there’s no ‘but’. You’re not thinking about what you did wrong last time, you’ve reviewed it and are on to the next job.”
As a relatively latecomer to the game – he grew up playing hockey in his native Lautoka and was picked for his first proper game of rugby aged 16 only because his school team were short – he also knows he does not have limitless time left to win major trophies. “When I first came to the club Pat asked me what I wanted to achieve. I told him: ‘I want to go to a team where I can win silverware.’ He laid out a vision of a team who would compete with the big European teams, inspire the community and have international players. I thought: ‘I want to be part of that.’”
If he can propel Bristol onwards and upwards it will further intensify the debate over England’s ideal back-row balance, with his new team-mate Ben Earl also responding well to Lam’s tutelage. On Saturday, though, they must subdue Jack Willis, English rugby’s new breakdown king, who has developed significantly since Hughes played alongside him. “When people review a team like Wasps they always talk about Malakai Fekitoa and Jimmy Gopperth but now it’s ‘Jack Willis, Jack Willis.’ Credit to him. He’s worked his socks off and he’s played some great rugby.”
If there are any mixed emotions about revisiting the Ricoh Arena – “It’ll be nice to see some old faces but we want to get the job done and then catch up with people after the game” – Hughes will not be dwelling on them. It could just be a fast-flowing classic, his favourite type of contest whether or not it changes Eddie Jones’s view of him. “He hasn’t been in contact but I’m not going to wait for the call. All I can control is my performance week in and week out. I’m happy with the way I’m playing and the way I am. For me it’s about concentrating on the team.
“The season has been good so far and we can make it great by lifting two cups. During lockdown we said our goals were to make two finals and win them. We’re on track to achieve that.
“I see the weather is going to be nice, which suits the way we want to play. We like to move the ball around and play a lot of rugby so we’re in a good mindset. We’ve already accomplished one goal, making the European Challenge Cup final. There’s no point getting to a semi-final or a final and not winning it.”