The head coach is to leave at the end of the season
On an afternoon in early June next year, while the Lions are down in New Zealand and dominating the rugby media, Pat Lam will be clearing out his desk at the Sportsground and saying farewell to the College Road venue four years on from his unheralded arrival.
No matter what happens between now and then, he’ll be able to look back at his tenure as a successful one. For sure, if Connacht fail to sustain their place in the Champions Cup and lose their shape and structure in the closing few months, there will be more than a tinge of regret but by the summer, he’ll still be able to close the door on a hugely successful chapter in his career.
If you have ever watched the TV game show Pointless you’ll know that the aim of the game is to find answers that are both correct but also not that well known. So if the question was, ‘Name as many Connacht head coaches from the professional era as you can?’ It is likely that the result would turn up a huge score for Eric Elwood and a very low score for Glen Ross. The coach that followed Warren Gatland might even turn out to be a 'pointless answer'.
It is safe to say that Pat Lam would not be a good answer to that question. In fact, it is easy to envisage that well over 75% of people in Ireland have heard of the Samoan at this stage. In Connacht, it’s close to 100%. He is now the a name as synonymous with rugby in the west as Mr. Elwood himself. That’s some achievement in four short years.
Upon his arrival in April of 2013, Lam quickly realised that one of the biggest challenges he would face is finding a way to get the entire region behind his new team. The rugby community throughout the region were long since hooked and could turn up in huge numbers on the big days. The visits of the All Blacks in the 70's and 80's through to the last decade where big days against Harlequins and Toulon in the Challenge Cup saw sold out signs go up.
Lam was announced as head coach in April 2013. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie
Yet there was always an understanding that a wider net needed to be cast for the province to be successful. One-off events were not going to be sustainable, consistent progress and success would help build a permanent and large fan base. The style of play would need to change, risks needed to be taken and Lam’s vision was to do this through a change of mindset combined with a change of ethos.
Long story short, it worked. Slowly but surely over the first two years, the team began to evolve in it’s playing style. Lam would have quickly identified the phenomenal work being done at the Connacht academy under the stewardship of Nigel Carolan and realised he had a conveyor belt of locally developed talent completely at odds with the region's small playing population.
He didn’t stall and try to contemplate why that was, he just accepted what his eyes told him, these young players were good enough, they had seen game time under Eric Elwood, and just needed a chance to develop. The arrival of Mils Muliaina might not have made much of a difference on the field but off the field but it transformed the mindset, he was the first big name in the camp and he instilled confidence in young backs like Tiernan O’Halloran and Robbie Henshaw along with many more. It all paid off.
New Zealand legend Mils Muliaina was one of Lam's key signings. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie
Year three was all about capitalising on it and boy did they do that in a spectacular way, Connacht won the PRO12 title and created a legacy that should last a decade. From Belmullet to Portumna and Sligo to Clifden, Connacht is now a sporting team for a people to be proud of and Lam has played a key role in turning heads and converting many many people into watching and following the sport of rugby and the team that neatly represents what makes Connacht so different to Munster, Leinster or Ulster.
On Monday, as news sunk in of his departure, a walk around Galway underlined the level of frustration and shock that is likely to linger for sometime. Each rugby fan I met, had a look of utter dejection in their eyes, words were not needed. The frustration and anger will seem pointless to most of them as there’s no one to direct it at, Lam is leaving for a hugely lucrative pay rise and going to a club that are ready to change their mindset and install a culture over a long period of time.
No one can blame the Samoan for leaving, some will ask if the money should have been found to keep him here at least until the end of his latest contract which was set to last until 2018. Their views will be aired in the clubhouses and pubs across the provinces over the next few weeks and their voices will grow louder should the team falter in the forthcoming games.
The hunch however, is that this team is now firmly on solid ground and set to take a step out Lam’s shadow over the next 12 months. If they can deliver the results they are capable of achieving in the forthcoming mammoth games against Wasps away and home before travelling to Ulster and hosting Munster, then that will be a huge statement from the camp that despite this bombshell, they are more than equipped to absorb such news and move forward.
Should they falter and notwithstanding away games, lose both home fixtures, the timing of this announcement and the medium term future of this squad and province will be under the spotlight a little. That said, even a few bad results can’t undo the work that has gone into reshaping the culture within the province. Whatever happens, when Lam boards that flight for Bristol on a warm summer's day in June, he’ll know he has made a difference.