Pat Lam’s Connacht revolution to continue after he signs new deal
Former All Black wants to continue moulding culture of leadership in west
Connacht head coach Pat Lam says he wouldn’t be working in Galway if the province didn’t match his ambition. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
This all-embracing coach has married his own philosophies and beliefs with those of Connacht rugby and woven them into something substantial. Lam has added and taken away, and brought out qualities that had been dormant. He has used natural resources, uncovered gems, added Samoan mojo, and with it changed the dimensions of Connacht rugby’s ambition.
Yesterday the province got Lam’s ink for another three years. It was a vote for ambition and an expression of their vision. There is La Rochelle this weekend and a Six Nations which will take out some key players for the Pro12 campaign, but Lam almost looks at Connacht as a social project as much as a rugby team.
“When I first came here I said don’t expect me to be looking just at rugby,” he says. “The game is only part of it. Building the culture and building leaders, they all go hand-in-hand.
“In my first interview, my first question was about their vision. What is the vision of Connacht? When they shared that with me about being world class, about taking it to a place where we are respected and not a development province but one of four provinces, that’s what attracted me.
“That’s why we go out to all the places we do. We’re going out to Carrick-on-Shannon in Leitrim because it’s the last county we want to get to. All the players, Mils Muliaina, Bundee Aki and even people like Dave McSharry from Dublin . . . just to keep connected to the people of the west. That gives a sense of pride.”
It has been an evolution watched from afar with curiosity and admiration. As the crowds grow and they stand sixth in the Pro12 and still in with a chance of qualifying from their Challenge Cup pool, the team continues to grow. There have been some shortcomings – ball retention in their loss to the already qualified Exeter was one – but Lam has asked hard questions and his team has responded.
He points to Willy Ruane, Eric Elwood and Nigel Carolan, all former Connacht players with credentials, as a granite foundation for the team he is building. But he also looks at the people, islander to islanders. They seem to get it.
“In the Samoan culture, there are many similarities [to Ireland],” he says. “It is very much about being based around the family. The family is the core group and you do anything for your family. I think that’s why Polynesians are very much at home in team sports. They work together, not just as a family but a happy family.
“You can’t take that for granted because everyone has to have an understanding for each other and be willing to be challenged. The stronger the relationship, the stronger you can challenge. I said the first time I came that it was all important that team relationships were made across the squad.
“You can’t challenge if you don’t know a person that well. You go onto a field and you don’t know him well and you don’t know who you represent or what you stand for, you can’t dig deep.”
He talks, like Joe Schmidt does but in a different way, of process and outcome and structure. When he says world class, he implicitly means that Connacht will aspire to consistently compete at the same level as their nearest neighbours, Leinster and Munster – but he won’t say it out loud.
“If my family weren’t happy and Connacht didn’t have ambition, you could give me all the money in the world and I wouldn’t be here,” he says.
“If we can get to Saturday night and we are at the highest we’ve ever been and we have the knockout stages in April . . . that’s not a bad first half of the season.”
No, not bad at all.