Connacht head coach Pat Lam has signed a new three-year deal ahead of the province’s final chance to bag a Challenge Cup quarter-final.
Lam, who was recruited to replace Eric Elwood by former chief executive Tom Sears on a two-year deal, will now remain at the Galway Sportsground until the summer of 2018.
Current Connacht chief executive Willie Ruane says Lam’s contract extension was significant for the province’s future plans.
“We are delighted he can continue to build on the systems and structures he has implemented since arriving here two years ago. It’s a big statement for Connacht Rugby and confirms the progress we have made and are looking to continue making in the future.”
Ruane said Lam had instilled a “real culture of belief” in the senior team, while also having a big effect on the rest of Connacht Rugby.
“The vision is delivering for the community — from grassroots to green shirts,” said Ruane. And former Auckland Blues coach Lam believes the province has made major progress since his arrival.
“I came here initially to ensure Connacht rugby was seen not as a development team, but right up there competing. We still have a way to go, but we have made progress. I know we are on the right track.”
In their second year under the New Zealander, Connacht are enjoying their most successful season to date in the Pro12, currently sitting in the sixth qualification position, but they head to France this week knowing a European quarter-final is on the line unless they bag a bonus-point win against La Rochelle.
However Lam’s midfield is decimated with regulars Robbie Henshaw (ankle), Dave McSharry (concussion), Bundi Aki (ankle) and Craig Ronaldson (quad) ruled out.
“Certainly we are very stretched. That’s four midfielders out, so we need to dig deep into our squad. When you have a small squad, the versatility of players is crucial.”
Lam options include rejigging his backline with Mils Muliaina, Darragh Leader, Conor Finn, who played against Bayonne, and Danie Poolman, all having played in the centre.
Up front, Nathan White, after a full recovery from elbow surgery, returns to the senior XV, having played in the Eagles 17-0 victory over Leinster A last week.
The New Zealander, who is also part of Joe Schmidt’s squad, has signed a new two-deal with the province, along with fellow front row forwards Ronan Loughney and Finlay Bealham.
Meanwhile Irish Rugby can breathe a sigh of relief with news centre Robbie Henshaw will be fit for the Six Nations.
The Athlone native, who injured his ankle playing for Connacht on Sunday, will be ready to take his place at next week’s Ireland squad session.
Henshaw, who saw out the Challenge Cup game with his ankle strapped, will however miss Saturday’s final European pool fixture against La Rochelle.
“An MRI scan confirmed it was just a low grade ankle strain, so with a bit of rest and recovery this week, he will be available to train on Monday in the Irish camp,” Lam said.
The 21-year-old who started in Ireland’s autumn wins over South Africa and Australia, is now first choice to replace the retired Brian O’Driscoll in the forthcoming Six Nations. Jared Payne, his centre partner in the South African match, has also returned from an ankle injury after a two-month recovery, but Stuart Olding has been ruled out with an elbow injury.
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