Connacht head coach Pat Lam’s request to void the final year of his contract with Ireland’s western province and take up a lucrative contract with Premiership strugglers Bristol has come as a shock to all involved with both Connacht and Irish Rugby.
The man who has been the key catalyst in the remarkable turnaround in fortunes for Ireland’s often forgotten province will not only be a huge loss to both Connacht and Irish rugby, but to the larger Connacht community.
Widely renowned as one of the world’s best during his playing days for Auckland, Samoa and later Newcastle, it is worth remembering that Lam arrived in Galway following a less than stellar tenure as the head coach of the Blues in Super Rugby.
The disappointment of being fired may well have spelled the end of a less driven and passionate coach. Instead the lessons learnt in Auckland would stand Lam in good stead on the other side of the rugby world in Western Ireland.
Upon his arrival at Connacht, Lam was handed a side that had accepted mediocrity as their culture. Whilst no professional team enjoys accepting that, the years of underperforming had become a habit, in part due to the IRFU’s view that Connacht would best serve as a filter to Ireland’s other three provinces, seasons of losing records did not help the Galway men’s cause.
Lam may have looked to mimic the blue print of Munster, Leinster and Ulster with all enjoying success, including five European Cups as well as a handful of PRO12 titles. Instead he took it upon himself to create a new culture, a culture that not only yielded exciting rugby but also embodied the five counties of Connacht.
Lam immediately identified that for Connacht to be successful, the team needed the full support of the province behind them. The west of Ireland is a Gaelic dominated region in both language and sport, Gaelic’s last true outpost in Ireland. Whilst the rest of the country plays the Gaelic games, the language is diminished to only being spoken at school.
Building a squad of castoffs from other provinces mixed in with homegrown talent and the odd clever signing from outside Ireland, no one more so than Bundee Aki, Lam set about enforcing a rule of every player greeting one another in Irish whilst also adopting the handshake of the five counties of Connacht province.
At first players were embarrassed with the new greeting. Soon it became habit. These two small gestures in isolation may not appear to be significant, Lam understood that as a team they represented the people of Connacht not just the rugby union.
Merging that action with a willingness to integrate with their community via trips to local schools, moving training sessions to other provinces outside Galway as well as ensuring players were presented as good role models ensured that Lam and his side truly gained the support of the community.
Alongside the willingness to accept the local culture, Lam integrated some New Zealand traits that would become perhaps the most evident of Connacht’s new culture.
Lam made a rule that all players should carry a rugby ball everywhere with them – a significant piece to the puzzle for the culture Lam was instilling in his side, the thought process being that players need to feel confident in their skills if they are to adopt a truly XV style of rugby. If a player has a ball with them at all time, their natural reaction will be to play with the ball as well as feeling they need to get their hands on the ball when they don’t have it.
Like any culture the new breed of Connacht rugby that Lam was looking to build did not happen overnight. During Lam’s first two seasons Connacht made progress but still did not manage to crack the top four on the PRO12 standings.
The side suffered heart-breaking defeats, especially to Gloucester during a Champions Cup playoff. Connacht were clearly making strides and playing an attractive style of rugby that began to draw crowds back to the Galway sportsground.
Even so, at the beginning of the 2015/16 PRO12 season few would have predicted Connacht as future winners. That clean sweep over their southern rivals Munster as well as wins over Leinster during the regular season all culminated with Connacht going on to win the final in style, following back-to-back victories over defending champions Glasgow before finishing off with a comprehensive over Leinster in the final at Murrayfield.
This final was the epitome of Lam’s work. Having turned a side with no more than two internationals into a side that now regularly produces Test players, Lam has been the orchestrator in a revival that transcends rugby, standing out as one of sport’s great turnarounds in recent times.
His departure is of course an almighty loss, given the effect he has had on a province that the IRFU had looked to disband in 2003 has been remarkable.
Lam will leave Galway in the knowledge that he has left the union in a far better state than the one he arrived to. Whoever is named the next Connacht coach will certainly have both the infrastructure and player base to continue to push Connacht into a position to consistently challenge Europe’s elite.
With international quality players in the squad such as Bundee Aki, Tiernan O’Halloran and Kieran Marmion to name but a few, as well as plans for a new stadium in the near future, Lam’s legacy as one Connacht’s most influential coaches has certainly been cemented.
His future employers, Bristol, will hope for more of the same.