Lam recognises that underdog thing - and he knows how to use it
Pat Lam is fully aware of the task facing him as the next head coach at Connacht, but far from finding the role of underdog daunting, an “excited” Lam draws parallels with captaining Samoa. Such is his enthusiasm for his new job Lam is hoping to arrive in April to oversee Connacht’s final three games of the season under Eric Elwood to effect as smooth a transition as possible.
Given the transformation on and off the pitch in the last few years, much of it inspired by Elwood, it’s doubtful whether there is a more challenging coaching job in Irish rugby.
He appreciates the task in taking over from Elwood.
“The biggest thing for me when I met with the panel was, straightaway, the vision for Connacht rugby and as they started to share that with me I started to get pretty excited. They explained some of the history of Connacht and where they were at the moment and the great work that Eric Elwood has done and where they want to go.
“They’re constantly fighting for recognition,” continued Lam. “They’re seen as the feeder team to the other three, the underdog, and that appealed to me straight away. I did some homework and watched some of the games and I was impressed by the passion of the players and also the fans. I saw that in bucketloads.”
Once Lam watched the documentary The West’s Awake, he was hooked, and thought of his initial move to the Northern Hemisphere as a player with Newcastle in the late 90s.
He subsequently joined Northampton, also “fighting for recognition”, and who he captained to their 2000 Heineken Cup triumph.
“I just love that challenge when you are working with a team who don’t necessarily have everything. I was used to that when I was playing for Samoa, and recently (as part of the coaching ticket) on their November tour when beating some of the big boys. And it all comes back to team-work.
“That’s my real passion and everyone has got to give every inch of themselves to the team so that we can be at our best and compete. And I’m looking forward to that.”
Lam and Connacht chief executive Tom Sears are still finalising the remainder of the coaching ticket for next season and although both of Elwood’s assistants, Dan McFarland and Billy Millard, are out of contract at the end of the season, the incoming head coach and Sears are keen for an element of continuity. Speaking to The Irish Times yesterday while on a family holiday in Pukekoh, south of Auckland, Lam comes to Connacht having coached Auckland and then the Auckland Blues for four years apiece.
He maintains that the latter experience, which ended when he was replaced by John Kirwan, after an anti-climactic post-World Cup season following their semi-final a year before, has made him a better coach.
“I think good times never change a character, and there was a massive challenge there as a coach. The board chose not to replace the defensive coach, so in the whole of Super rugby we were the only team that had two full-time coaches.
“Every other team had four-plus, and then we had the worst injury record in Super Rugby history which meant we started with a squad of 30 and ended up using 44 players.”
“That’s fine, but you’ve got to have the staff to be able to do it, so probably the biggest regret, and therefore the biggest lesson, is not fighting to ensure the players had adequate coaching staff.
A lot of top coaches around the world have been sacked, and if I’d never been sacked I wouldn’t have had experienced the opportunity of working with Samoa, probably one of the highlights of my life, and now I’ve the opportunity to come to Connacht.”
Lam has signed a two-year deal with the option, on both sides, to extend. His oldest kid, 20-year-old Michigan, is in Auckland University and playing for North Harbour, so Lam and his wife Stephanie will move to Galway with Bryson (17), Nelana (15), Josiah (12) and Bethany (five).
His contract starts in June but both he and Connacht are hopeful he can arrive in April. “I’d like to see the last three games against Edinburgh, Glasgow and Ulster.”