That Pat Lam will be leaving Connacht at the end of this season was not so much the surprise yesterday as the awkward timing of the announcement.
As preparations for Sunday’s Champions Cup trip to English Premiership side Wasps go, there will have been easier starts to a week’s training than yesterday’s requirement to process some pretty devastating news for the province.
You can be sure the urgency to get the news out will have come from Bristol, the club where Lam will be plying his trade from next season having brought unprecedented success to Connacht in what will have been a fourth term as head coach in Galway.
Bristol may have money but with relegation from the Premiership already staring them in the face, with no wins from the first 10 games of their return to the English top flight, they had to act in all due haste following the sacking of Andy Robinson as their director of rugby last month. Attracting Lam, 48, to the sinking ship may have been one job well done but the former Samoa star’s signing will give them a chance of luring some quality players into the squad in the hope of an instant rebound from the Championship should they fail to escape the drop in May.
Those are Bristol’s problems, however, and one of the reasons why Lam appears such an ideal fit for the fallen English south-west powerhouse.
One look at Lam’s record with Connacht will have given Bristolians all the information they need about a coach capable of picking a club down on its luck and delivering a team to the promised land.
“Pat was the outstanding candidate in our search for a new head coach and impressed the board with his coaching ability, experience and enthusiasm for the task ahead,” Bristol chairman Chris Booy said, before adding: “We’re very pleased to appoint an individual of his quality.”
If Lam can repeat his heroics in Ireland with Bristol then the English club will be more than satisfied because with Connacht he helped perform a rugby miracle, picking up the baton from predecessor Eric Elwood and leading the westerners from lower-mid-table mediocrity to the Guinness PRO12 title in his third season.
Last season’s transformation from also-rans to champions was astonishing in a year when Leicester City also confounded the odds and won football’s English Premier League. If Connacht’s achievement in itself was remarkable, the manner in which they saw off all comers with free-flowing running rugby to excite their faithful followers and exhilarate neutrals was something to behold, and Lam must take the credit for empowering his players to perform the way did.
It turned promising rugby men into internationals and Ireland boss Joe Schmidt will have been grateful to the Connacht boss for that as Ultan Dillane, Tiernan O’Halloran, and Finlay Bealham joined Robbie Henshaw and Kieran Marmion as squad regulars, while Matt Healy, Niyi Adeolokun, and Quinn Roux have also been capped in the last 12 months.
Leaving that sort of talent behind was, Lam said yesterday: “One of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make in my life”.
“Connacht and Galway is such a special place for myself and my family. The friendships, support and memories we all have experienced throughout our time in the west of Ireland is truly heartfelt and will never be forgotten. I feel extremely blessed to have been given an opportunity four years ago to build on the excellent work of Eric Elwood. I’m very proud that I can now pass on the baton with the knowledge that Connacht Rugby is truly seen as one of four strong provinces of Irish rugby.”
That Lam is leaving a team of champions for relegation-haunted strugglers does seem curious and he will need to explain his reasons in more detail when he faces the media in Galway tomorrow. Perhaps four years at the helm is as long as anyone can hope to deliver one’s best in any team environment and he feels he has taken Connacht as far as any one coach can hope.
Players leave when their contracts expire and so do coaches. It is a natural cycle in professional sport. The least one can hope to achieve is to be able to leave the organisation you took charge of in a better shape than when you arrived. It may be to Irish rugby’s detriment that he goes but Lam, for certain, can say he has achieved that objective when his time comes next May.
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