Gerry Thornley: Lam to exit Connacht with sizeable legacy
Timing of head coach’s announcement will give province time to identify his successor
Pat Lam: Helped make Connacht winners, even champions. Photograph Andrew Surma/NurPhoto via Getty
Lest we forget, this is not the first time an Irish province has lost their main man to an English club due to a financially more remunerative offer. Nor are Bristol even the first club from the West Country to do so, and nor is this risk confined to overseas career coaches.
Prior to Bristol ensnaring Pat Lam at the end of this season, one of their local rivals, Gloucester, lured David Humphreys across the water in 2014, and if the Ulster legend could be lured away from his native province, anybody can be.
It’s a professional game, and coaches are as vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the pro sport as anyone, if not more so, be it the consequences of refereeing decisions, injuries, hard luck stories or, increasingly, the fickleness of wealthy, ambitious and impatient owners, or in some cases supporters.
Lam’s departure is disappointing, but few will begrudge him his decision to secure his family’s financial well-being. He and Stefanie have five kids, and all but the eldest, Michigan, have been part of their expedition to the west of Ireland. You believe Lam when he says this was one of the most difficult decisions of his life.
The timing of Lam’s announcement has also raised eyebrows, but, provided it does not affect Connacht’s performances on the field, by declaring his intentions now, Lam has given Connacht ample elbow room to identify his successor.
As he reveals in the book charting Connacht’s journey to last season’s unlikely Guinness Pro12 success, Front Up, Rise Up, Lam was walking the streets of Auckland on Sunday, January 3nd, 2013, with his wife Stefanie and discussing their future.
His agent rang to say Connacht had made an offer to make him their next head coach, whereupon Stefanie said to him: “That’s the one.”
He had also met representatives from three UK clubs. “I won’t say who they were. When I got home, Connacht wasn’t my first choice. But in January, when Connacht made their offer, the other clubs with whom I was in contact couldn’t make a decision before March. So, bird in the hand and all that.”
“If Connacht had waited until March, then I might have had to choose. But Connacht were the first with a firm offer, and the more I looked, the more I thought: ‘I think I could do something here’.”
And did he.
It’s worth recalling now that after a win at home to Zebre in Lam’s opening match, Connacht lost their next 10 games in a row, culminating in a 43-10 defeat to Edinburgh. The following week, they stunned everyone with a 16-14 win away to Toulouse; an important benchmark victory in a season that would see them finish 10th in the league.
In his second season, Connacht missed out on their target of qualifying for the European Champions Cup when finishing seventh in the league and losing a playoff to Gloucester.
But by the third they were ready to maximise the opportunity that the World Cup presented, and after a mid-season wobble, they beat Leinster, Munster and Glasgow twice at a packed, throbbing Sportsground before their 20-10 win over Leinster in the May final at Murrayfield. Their momentum was unstoppable, and not only were they the best team in the league, but the best to watch, with their offloading, counter-attacking, ball-in-hand game that made judicious use of inventive kicking. They made the Murrayfield pitch look huge.
A truly inspiring visionary, Lam helped Connacht to change not only the way they played, but changed their perception of themselves, engendering a new-found pride and unity within the province. Expectation and crowd support have swelled beyond recognition. He and they embraced the five counties like never before. He led the way by making a presentation of himself to all the squad so as to foster the familial culture that the former Samoan captain so desires. He helped make them winners, even champions.
Lam has always maintained that Connacht were about more than him or any one individual, and his true legacy will perhaps be determined in the future. To begin with, you hope he has something more to achieve with Connacht this season, for reaching the knock-out stages of the European Champions Cup for the first time would be at least the equal of winning last season’s Pro12, all the more so were it coupled with a top-six league finish.
Either way, Lam himself will forever owe Connacht and Irish rugby a huge debt, given he rebuilt his coaching career with them, but similarly they and Irish rugby will forever be indebted to him. He will leave them in an altogether better state than he found them. Connacht will never be the same again.