For as long as I can remember, Connacht have always been little more than an afterthought in Irish sporting life, but the manner of the rugby team’s achievements this year, culminating in last weekend’s stunning success in the Pro 12 final, suggests they are now firmly leading the way in establishing a compact and sustainable business model for many of the financially dependant provinces.
While recognising the good work of others before him, Pat Lam’s successful tenure has undoubtedly proven that while the individual pieces can be there for years without effectively forging a formula for success, once a manager of Lam’s calibre and nous comes along, it’s possible to bring everything together to reinvigorate a club.
From a playing perspective, they’ve also thrown out for good, the lazy argument that you can only compete at the very top by having the necessary financial resources in place to do so.
Of course money counts, but despite the continual financial uncertainty that has surrounded Connacht rugby for years, it is now patently clear their commitment to upskilling local indigenous talent, has never compromised or changed the ambition to play an engaging brand of rugby — one that has not only captured the minds of every sponsor and rugby fan in Ireland, but has also laid a very solid foundation for the future development of the game at grassroots level.
If Lam has earned most of the plaudits for the unshakable winning mentality and understanding of team chemistry he has brought to the province, then the implementation and realisation of his vision must also recognise the depth of the management structure around him — from the chief executive Willie Ruane, to team manager Tim Allnutt, academy manager Nigel Carolan, domestic manager Eric Elwood and captain John Muldoon, all of whom have collectively set the tone for the entire organisation.
Collectively, it seems they have now built an organisation that recognises and accommodates financial constraints and a hitherto shallow talent pool while remaining committed to the core principle of team and community — not individuals.
That’s a pretty good recipe for success and now that they have found a formula that works best for them, it should be fascinating to see where they go from here.
One issue they will have to address in the short term is the transition of certain key players out of the team — something which is very normal in professional sport. We now know Connacht have already lost some of their highest profile players, like Henshaw and Muldowney, and places a heavy burden on management to replace them with the right make up of player who will to commit to his coaching philosophy and offer the necessary stability and leadership for Lam’s team on and off the pitch.
In order to build anything long-lasting, the responsibility now rests with chief executive Ruane, Lam and Allnut to ensure Connacht rugby continues to be properly run. Now is not the time for any emotional decision-making or bad buying.
In this day and age, everyone wants that instant fix but stability is more important — you cannot keep winning without it. Connacht has a very experienced and thoroughly professional management team in place so it is crucial they remain in situ, supporting the sound principles that have got them where they are to date. To get to this point they have taken courageous and unpopular decisions but the success will add breadth and depth to their financial muscle and drawing power — and support will be felt far wider and more regularly than just the Showgrounds in Galway.
Hopefully Connacht’s success can also act as a catalyst for other sporting organisations in Ireland who have lost their way or who are looking to realising their full potential. With good vision and communication and no bureaucracy to burden the decision-making process, it is amazing just what can be achieved in a very short period of time.
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