Pat Lam: ‘Saying goodbye to Axel was key in my decision’

Departing Connacht coach described how managing the province has changed his life

Pat Lam has described how attending the wake of his friend and Munster coach Anthony Foley made a profound impact on him and influenced his decision to join Bristol as head coach next season. In a long and deeply-felt statement delivered in the Sportsground board room at lunchtime on Wednesday, the Samoan confirmed that the offer made by Bristol enabled him to guarantee the security of his family in the highly volatile and uncertain world of professional coaching.

With Connacht CEO Willie Ruane sitting alongside him, Lam stressed that he before he arrived in Connacht, he had been "a sacked coach for seven months: no job, five kids and wife."

The radical transformation which Connacht has enjoyed under Lam in the past four years, culminating in the PRO 12 sensational success last May, has made him one of the most sought-after coaches in rugby. He confirmed that he had been made a significant offer by another club at the end of last season but didn’t feel in a position to take it at that stage. But a combination of Bristol’s vision for their future, the exceptional offer they placed before him and the emotional repercussions of paying his last respects to Anthony Foley, who died tragically at the age of just 43 on the eve of a Munster match in Paris, convinced him that he had to make the move.

He pointed out that the three other provincial coaches in place when he started at Connacht are no longer in those roles as an illustration of how quickly the working life of a professional coach can change.


“In my whole process I look at my rugby career because I am responsible for my family too. Are you ok to go to Galway? Are you ok to go to Newcastle? And when I came back from Bristol, we put it all on the table and we said: No. We are happy here. We love it here. Two weeks ago, Bristol put an offer down and it was quite significant. They pretty much said: can you come here and do what you did in Connacht. That completely flipped my decision from rugby to family. The reason why it did is that when I went down to Killaloo to see my good friend Axel at his removal and I saw Olive and saw his kids....when I left there, Axel, who was in that coaching environment and when I saw him there and found out what happened and we are so close because we are in the same situation: I am the second Pat Lam on this earth.

“The first one: I was named after my grandfather and he died of a heart attack at the age of 55 when I was nine. My father, through this whole process, shouldn’t have been here but thanks to technology he went through a quadruple bypass. I have heart issues anyway. But what it did for me was when I left all Killaloe with Willie and Tim [Allnut]all I could think about was if that happened me, what would happen to Steph and the kids.”

There have been various figures floated regarding the financial details offered by Bristol: Lam understandably did not quote any figures but acknowledged that the package was sufficient to make him feel that his family’s future would be secure “if my number comes up.”

In recalling his period in charge at Auckland, Lam retains keen memories of just how dramatically and suddenly the mood and environment can change for a head coach when results turn negative.

“Me and my family were the only ones who faced the racial abuse, my daughter answering the phone; my four year old daughter answering the door to a camera. And I arrived in Connacht as the head coach, Mark Anscombe was head coach in Ulster, Matt O’Connor was head coach in Leinster and Rob Penney was head coach in Munster. Obviously, I am the last one standing at the moment. Mark signed a new contract in February but was released in July. Matt O’Connor had a three year deal and was released after two years. That is the reality of the world I choose to live in and the reason I choose to is because I love what I do.”

Outlining the trajectory of a playing and coaching career in which establishing new successes has always been paramount, Lam spoke with gratitude about the last four years of a rugby and personal life in the west of Ireland and recalled a phone call with Eric Elwood shortly before he arrived in Galway for the first time.

“He was leaving his home province and I was leaving mine. We knew of each other. We didn’t know each other but knew of each other. But I could see his passion and I said to him then that I promise to do everything I can to help your home province. And last year, I had another significant offer and I knew then that I couldn’t look him, Willie or the players in the eye. But now, I feel that looking where we are after four years of an improvement and the systems and structures in place and this document [ Lam was holding the Connacht Rugby: Vision and Strategy document] will stay with me of all the memorabilia I have in my playing and coaching career. Because when I look at it is alive: it is truly alive.”

CEO Willie Ruane accepted that while the initial news had been as shocking for the players as it was for the growing legion of Connacht supporters who have come to revere Lam, he did not feel that that it would unsettle the team as they continue with the season. On Sunday, Connacht have a vital Champions Cup game away to Wasps in Coventry. The closeness of that fixture meant that minds had to return to the training field by Tuesday morning.

Lam said that a procession of players came in to see him on Monday, including Bundee Aki, who had voiced his unhappiness at the news in a blunt message delivered via Twitter.

“Like all the players, everyone was shocked but I have spoken to Bundee and he gave me a pretty big bear hug and we shed a few tears,” Lam said.

“Bundee has made a decision about his family too and he loves the place.”

Lam did, however, share one conversation he had with Kiwi hooker Tom McCartney.

“Tom has been with me since my days in Auckland and he said to me: look, the thing I’m most thankful about is that I’ve seen all the work you have done here and you have been rewarded for it. But it’s no different to the work you put in back in Auckland. But instead of saying goodbye to you because you’ve been sacked, I can say goodbye in six months because you have been rewarded.”

Ruane said that several coaching CV’s have arrived with the club since Lam’s departure was confirmed and that all options are open when it comes to appointing a successor. The atmosphere at the conference was odd: it felt like a farewell even though Connacht are just entering the most frenetic phase of an exciting winter calendar. Lam said he considers next season’s move closed after this conference and was relieved when matters finally turned to the rugby field again. The conversations about his decision are bound to continue throughout the season but there was no doubting Lam’s integrity and honesty when he chronicled the dilemma which the Bristol offer, while hugely attractive, presented to the family.

“It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t easy to tell all the people that mean a lot to me and especially to the players.”

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a features writer with The Irish Times