Hook in the West
THE west awoke with a bang last Monday morning. Pat Lam’s bombshell news that he will leave Connacht for Bristol next season hit rugby fans across the province like a train crash, as the Sportsground faithful struggled to make sense of it all.
Nobody outside of Lam and Chief Executive Willie Ruane had the slightest inkling of what was to come. Only the previous weekend, Lam appeared on RTÉ’s People of the Year Awards, where he professed to being extremely content with life in the west. There was nothing in Lam’s body language or demeanour that suggested a sudden departure was imminent.
I have been a huge fan of Lam’s work since he first took over at the Sportsground four years ago. His early attempts to integrate himself into his local surroundings left no stone unturned: he even took it upon himself to pick up the cùpla focal and his warm smile and rapport with the Galway people was effortless and genuine.
But it was on the rugby pitch that Lam exceeded all expectations. Connacht, through a steady series of creative training methods, where a premium was placed on maintaining possession and developing a skill-set that encouraged players to offload the ball at pace, began to catch the eye.
Over the course of Lam’s first two seasons in charge, there were plenty of close-run defeats, where the bounce of a ball, or some inexplicable refereeing decisions stole victory from Connacht’s grasp. But, with each unlucky break, Lam smiled for the camera and insisted that Connacht were on the verge of a meaningful breakthrough.
Connacht continued to develop and, in tandem with their superb handling skills, the results began to come good. Last season, as the tries flowed like champagne at a gala ball and the rugby dazzled and delighted in equal measure, Connacht went all the way to the Guinness Pro12 final, where they toppled Leinster in a wonderful display at Murrayfield.
How apt it was that Lam’s side graced one of the widest pitches in Europe to deliver the holy grail of a first ever league title for the province. Connacht outclassed their richer, more successful Irish cousins in a superb performance that was every inch the fitting tribute to their eye-catching season. In short, Connacht gave Leinster a lesson in how to play the game of rugby union.
Lam’s stamp was all over that performance. Where Joe Schmidt’s Ireland had been pragmatic, boring and difficult to like in recent years, Lam had forged a path for Irish rugby that was based on running, passing, skill and adventure. The focus was on running rugby; victory was a consequence of that mantra, not the other way around. Not only were Connacht winning games, but they were winning them in wonderful fashion.
Lam’s decision to uproot his family from Galway and move to a side that will almost certainly be relegated from the top tier of English rugby this season might have left Connacht fans scratching their heads in bemusement, but his subsequent explanation at a press conference last week makes the move easier to understand.
Lam’s first priority is his family; to provide for their financial security and ensure they will be looked after should anything happen to him. His own family history suggests he is all too aware of the fact hat life is short; his grandfather died of a heart attack at 55 years of age, while his father only recently had a quadruple bypass. Lam referenced the recent tragic death of his old friend Anthony Foley when explaining the reasons behind his decision to join Bristol. To me, it makes perfect sense.
Ultimately, Connacht’s loss is Bristol’s gain, but it is important that the Connacht board seek out the best possible replacement to fill the New Zealander’s shoes. Experience coaching at the highest level is an important attribute for any potential successor, but a premium must be placed on continuing the work done that Lam and his team have been doing over the last four years.
The next Connacht head coach must understand what it is that has gotten Connacht to this level. There is no point bringing in a ‘big name’ that will undermine all the fine work done up to now and bring Connacht back to a boring, stale brand of rugby from the dark ages. Such a move would be nothing short of disastrous for the province and it would be a giant step backwards for the players and supporters alike.
Immediately, one name jumps out at me. Bernard Jackman knows Connacht rugby inside out, having played for the province during his professional career. Crucially, however, he has a track record in taking a young, inexperienced Grenoble side to the pinnacle of French club rugby and he made the very most out of a small pool of resources.
Grenoble have bucked the trend of Top 14 rugby, where the emphasis for the majority of sides has been on power and bulk. Jackman, along with former Young Munster and Munster scrum half, Mike Prendergast, has overseen a dramatic shift in the way Grenoble attack, with a premium on pace, space and handling skills as the primary method of unlocking defences. Sound familiar?
Not only have Grenoble exceeded expectations in recent years, they have outperformed the limitations of one of the smallest budgets in the Top14 and Jackman has been key to their success. His eye for spotting previously unheralded talent has been one of the key reasons why Grenoble have survived in the French top flight in recent seasons and were he to leave France to come back to Irish soil, I have no doubt he would make a success of Connacht, too.
Lam has been a revelation for Irish rugby and Connacht have been the chief beneficiaries of his coaching talents. And though his loss will be difficult, it is vital that Connacht go after a suitable replacement for next season. With Bernard Jackman and Mike Prendergast, I believe they have the perfect answer staring them in the face. Mr Ruane could do a lot worse then pick up the phone and make the call.