Pat Lam tapped into spirit of west and conjured magic at Connacht

Province insist coach’s departure is end of nothing but fanbase cannot but feel bereft

When the news that Pat Lam was leaving Connacht on Monday morning, the reaction of Connacht fans swayed between deep dismay and a rising disbelief that the west of Ireland club had somehow been burgled again.

The coaxing of the New Zealander seemed like the latest act in a tradition in which the brightest and best in the club are, invariably, taken by bigger rivals. The departure of Robbie Henshaw to Leinster was vivid proof of that but the fact that Lam could be persuaded to opt out of his contract and leave early felt like a wound from a double-edged sword.

There was a sense that Lam, through his force of personality and achievements as a coach, had almost single-handedly elevated Connacht to a place of equal status with the other three Irish provinces. It is arguably the first time that the Galway-based club has ever felt like that.

The dreamlike 2015-16 season, culminating in that Pro12 final victory over Leinster in Edinburgh, was presented as irrefutable proof that Connacht had arrived. That eye-catching talents like Bundee Aki and Ultan Dillane chose to stay, signing new contracts, seemed to offer an iron-clad shield to Connacht’s new-found status.

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A suitable stadium and a fitting home for the club had become a priority. Lam made Connacht seem like the best place any rugby person could work. So the emotional reaction to Monday’s news was childlike in its logic. If it’s so good, then how could he leave?

On Monday morning, as the news was splashed dramatically online and on the radio talk-shows, the entire enterprise seemed a lot more ephemeral and fragile. Everyone used the word “shock” without any self-consciousness. It is not a term usually associated with the fact of a professional rugby coach moving on to a new club, which happens all the time.

Battleship

In the hours and days after it became clear that Bristol had made Lam an offer that Irish rugby couldn't hope to match, Connacht moved swiftly to reassure its fanbase that this was the end of nothing. Willie Ruane, the club's highly plausible chief executive officer, must have used the word "ambition" two dozen times this week. It was central to his key-note address: that Connacht has become a battleship that will continue to thrive after Lam leaves.

On Wednesday, after listening to Lam’s heartfelt explanation – he laid himself bare in a lengthy, conversational statement which revolved around the moral duty he felt to provide for the long-term security of his wife Steph and five children in what is, at heart, a coldly calculating business – Ruane rejected the idea that Connacht had been generous in standing back and allowing Bristol to move in on their coach.

“It is not even about being generous. In fairness, back in the Aviva I was asked a specific question: were there clauses with regard to so-called bigger clubs? There were no specific clauses. There was a clause that allowed Pat to leave with six months’ notice. That had nothing to do with bigger clubs . . . there was nothing specific about it. So I was asked a direct question and gave an honest answer.

“But I have no issue at all . . . Pat has done so much for Connacht rugby. And we agreed a contract that we were all happy with. The outcome has been great for both parties. And we are very thankful to Pat. I can only wish him all the best and genuinely, Bristol are getting a good one.”

That goes without saying. Lam made a point of holding Connacht’s strategy and vision document aloft on Wednesday and presenting it as the bible for the future of the club. Like Ruane, he is confident that the new coach will step into a club that operates along very smooth and clearly defined principles.

“I remember when we first met we were both adamant that the whole vision and the plan to avert the crisis . . . and you have seen the reaction when people have left before,” Lam said.

Strong pillars

“It’s fine because the next person will come in and do the job. And that is just the business we are in. But I love the fact that we have built a very strong Connacht house and we continue to build it. And that house is in here. And that house has got three strong pillars with the club and community, with the academy and with the pro team.

“And it is up to the people that come in here – and I find that everyone has come in since this was built are thriving in their jobs because they have real clear purpose of where they want to go – they understand the goals and the game plan and they are getting on and doing it. It is a similar analogy to what is happening in our team. There’s the game plan. There’s the job and we will judge your performance on how well you do that job.”

None of us are privy to the internal day-to-day workings of Connacht but anyone who visits the stadium on game day can see and feel the difference and energy about the place. There is a contradiction at the heart of professional sport in that any successful enterprise must run like a business even though the last thing that supporters like to think of their team is that it is a business. They want to see the team play well and, ideally, win.

Under Lam, Connacht have won as never before and they are doing it in a style that is supremely bold and enviable. He made a weapon of Connacht’s independent streak. The deep-rooted fear now is that the atmosphere of fearless positivity will, if not disappear with him, then fade in the seasons ahead. The understandable dread for Connacht supporters is that the Lam era will prove to be a one-off.

In Front Up, Rise Up, Gerry Thornley's definitive account of Connacht's fabulous 2015-16 season, there is a fascinating passage chronicling Lam's reaction to a 43-10 loss away to Edinburgh. The team disintegrated on the field, coughing up 21 points in the last 10 minutes. Lam remembered "losing my rag" in the dressingroom for the first time in his coaching career. "I lost the plot," he told Thornley. "I got really angry. I said 'I'm not sure that I've come to the right place and whether all of the things that I read about you were true.'"

Educate his players

They flew home that night and Lam stayed up the entire night freeze-framing the game until he figured out the players’ defensive positional shortcomings. He knew there and then he needed to educate his players as to exactly where each player should be so they could retain a defensive shape in all situations. It was a “light-bulb moment”.

A week later, on December 8th, 2013, they went to Toulouse and won 16-14. It was as though the rocket was launched that night.

Speaking to RTÉ radio this week, Conor McGuinness of the Rugby Advisory Board pointed out that in rugby "clubs don't typically have coaches for five, 10, 15 years".

In Connacht, they knew that Lam’s name would be on a lot of shortlists once he guided his team to the Pro12. And as Lam said on Wednesday, he operates in such a “fickle” world that he doesn’t know where or if he will be working once his Bristol contract expires in three years’ time.

This week was a sharp shock for Connacht fans; the equivalent of taking a leap of the diving boards on the Prom into the Atlantic. For the supporters, Connacht is about escapism and enjoyment and a fierce local pride. Lam tapped into that intense association with place and identity and made it a huge virtue. Rugby, for him and the players, is a passion but it is also the way they make their living and it is viciously capricious.

Get injured, get sacked and, like any professional sport, it doesn’t want to know you. That knowledge made Lam feel he couldn’t say no to Bristol. And Connacht have responded in a professional way. The supporters are caught somewhere in the middle. They have watched over the past four seasons as Lam seemed to conjure up a kind of magic with a team which had seemed destined to perpetuate a cycle of harrowing losses and moral victories and a club that could only hope to survive.

Nobody can argue that Connacht’s executive made a brilliant call in securing Lam as their coach. The key task for Connacht now – above anything else that may happen this season – is to repeat that distinguished feat.

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a features writer with The Irish Times