Lam relishing the prospect of leading Connacht to new heights
Experienced former Auckland Blues coach unfazed by the difficult challenge ahead
Pat Lam has been in Galway for eight days now and already the incoming Connacht coach says he’s “absolutely loving it”.
The daily sunshine out west has helped, but after a three-and-a-half week stopover in the UK en route and en famille to meet old friends from his days with Newcastle and Northampton, already the move feels good.
“We’ve had a good look around the town,” says next season’s Connacht coach. “Beautiful? Yeah sure, but the people; friendly faces, chatting to people. We’ve met a lot of people already and it confirms that I’m in the right place. Rugby side? Vibrant city, but vibrant for rugby as well. Kids and adults wearing the jerseys. Exciting, it just confirmed everything about my research.”
Lam and his wife Stephanie are here with four of their five children; Bryson (aged 18), Nealana (15), Josiah (12) and Bethany (five). Josiah trained with the Galwegians under-12s on Tuesday night for the first time. The eldest Michigan (20) is in his third year studying commerce in Auckland University and playing for North Harbour, but will come over for his birthday in December as well as Christmas and New Year.
“People say you should get them rooted. But we believe as long as we’re together, and we’re ultimately the role models for our kids, and they see the world, then we’re happy. We’ve lived in the UK and France, they’re used to it and they were keen to get going again.”
Lam will have some input into Connacht’s remaining fourth overseas signing before next season, as well as replacements for the departing backs coach Billy Millard and defence coach Mike Forshaw.
As things stand, Lam will become the fourth Kiwi coach across the provinces for next season which, of course, is also a reflection of New Zealand’s global influence in the game – it’s a process akin to Brazilians trawling all four corners of the football world.
“When you grow up in New Zealand, babies are given rugby balls as presents. It’s the game. It’s in your blood. When I coached the Blues, mate there’s four million coaches. Everyone’s a coach.”
There is, he says, a sense of “déjà vu” in this. As an Auckland number eight, he regularly played against his Canterbury counterpart Rob Penney, and when Lam coached Auckland, not only was Penney coaching Canterbury, Joe Schmidt coached Bay of Plenty and Mark Anscombe coached Northland, and Schmidt’s time with the Blues also reaffirmed their friendship.
“Both of us are schoolteachers. We played for the New Zealand teachers together, and I’m not surprised at all by the success he’s having because aside from being a great coach, he’s a great man.”
At face value, and no disrespect to Connacht, but moving here from his last post with the Auckland Blues wouldn’t necessarily look like a step upwards.
“Rugby is rugby,” he begins. “What appealed to me about Connacht, because there were some other options, is that it’s in line with my coaching philosophy. The first line of my coaching philosophy is that rugby is the greatest team game ever, because your goals and aspirations are dependent on others.
“When you have a team of rock stars, you can win, rely on them and win games, but when you have a team that doesn’t have the same resources as your competitors – next year we won’t have any current Irish internationals – so what do we need?
“You need to come together as a team, but you need a lot of heart and soul, and the evidence that I’ve seen, mate there’s a lot of ticker, and there's a history of fighting against the odds. That’s why I’m here. That’s what excited me about it.”
Of Samoan parentage, in this, particularly, he draws on his experiences with Samoa through the World Cups of 1991, 1995 and 1999, when they twice reached the quarter-finals, as well as a stint as an assistant coach on their tour last November when wins over Wales and Canada, along with a narrow defeat to France, earned a top seven world ranking.
“People say ‘what was the highlight of your career?’ I’ve had a lot, but ’91 with Samoa,” he says emphatically. “Because it launched us. No-one knew who Samoa was, and to where they are now, the only tier two nation in the top eight, was done through fighting against all the odds; playing against teams that have bigger budgets. We might be against the Ferraris, but mate if we give it everything collectively we can stop a Ferrari.”
With an ever-improving conveyor belt through their Academy, there has also been a changed emphasis in the Elwood years to a much more ambitious running game, something Lam is obliged to continue, though he adds: “We have to earn the right to go wide. The game has evolved but what hasn’t changed is the fundamentals; win your ball, go forward, your support play and then applying pressure through your structures. None of that has changed so we have to make sure all of those things are in line.”