Outgoing Connacht coach Pat Lam believes fellow New Zealander Kieran Keane is his perfect successor.
The two have met on several occasions and Lam says Keane will know how to drive Connacht forward.
“He is a very good team man, big around culture, and is a school teacher, like myself. Ultimately he has got results in rugby and a lot of people speak highly of him, whether it is his peers or the players,” says Lam.
“When I was told they [Connacht] were looking at KK, I said ‘perfect choice’. He is a very experienced head coach, he’s relational, it’s about community – to get the best out of players, you get to know them – and he will drive them hard as well.
“Kieran is very comfortable in his skin. He’s not coming to prove he’s a head coach, he’s coming here to continue to drive the plan and he will fit in nicely. He has the experience and the players and the people here will love him.”
Keane, of Irish ancestry – possibly Waterford according to Connacht chief executive Willie Ruane – coaches an attacking style of play. It has won many admirers and one that ensured he is a good fit for continuing Connacht's style under Lam.
The two met at coaching conferences when Lam was involved with the Blues and Keane with the Highlanders.
“The good thing about those conferences, we all get together, the All Black coaches are there, we all talk rugby and then go out and have a meal together and a few drinks, and that is when the social side starts and KK was very much the life of that party.”
The two met again a couple of weeks ago in Galway when Keane made his first trip to Connacht after an initial interview via Skype. Although he did not meet the players, except captain John Muldoon, news of his appointment has been widely welcomed by the group, including Bundee Aki, who had left the Chiefs just prior to Keane's appointment, but maintains contact with his former club mates.
Aki is one of several players hoping to make a return to action for Connacht this weekend.
He's loving being back. He is the John Muldoon of the backline and a lot of what we do, it's not just his obvious ability, but his leadership is massive, calling the shots.
Aki, who was the "waterboy" in Connacht's win over the Dragons, fellow centres Stacey Ili and Eoin Griffin, fullback Cian Kelleher and lock Andrew Browne, have all returned to full training this week and are available for selection for Connacht's visit to Treviso on Sunday.
Lam says Aki’s leadership cannot be underestimated.
“He really wanted to run the water on the weekend,” said coach Pat Lam. “He came to see me, it’s not many people who volunteer to be the waterboy, just to get the feel of the atmosphere again and get back out there. He’s one of the leaders and can get the messages out there.
“He’s loving being back. He is the John Muldoon of the backline and a lot of what we do, it’s not just his obvious ability, but his leadership is massive, calling the shots. And he is big for Jack [Carty] as well, and Craig [Ronaldson], so you see the difference when he is there.”
Although absent for 10 games, Aki has attended meetings and reviews, but Lam says was missed on the training pitch where his influence is greater.
“This training week is massive because we have more time, and then we have only a five-day turnaround, so the good thing about these guys coming back is they jump into the bigger pot of players. There is no doubt it will not be the same team that plays this and the following week, can’t do it. It doesn’t mean some players won’t double up, but I can tell you now the team against Zebre will not be exactly the same 15.”