Nobody expected the shock announcement that Pat Lam would leave Connacht Rugby this week, only half way through his new three year deal. However, nobody expected back in 2013 that perennial strugglers Connacht would transform into the Pro 12 champions, regularly beating giants such as Munster and Toulouse rather than the Italian minnows or the Newport-Gwent Dragons.
The immediacy of the move stems from a contractual need for Lam to give six months’ notice prior to leaving the Westerners. However, the shock didn’t end there, as having built his side into a championship winning team, he will now leave to lowly Bristol who languish at the bottom of the Premiership with 4 points and are favourites for relegation to the Championship.
Potentially swapping European rugby for the English Championship seems a strange decision. From the sunny south of France to away trips to Doncaster, it seems almost nonsensical. However, even if Bristol are relegated there is some logic in Lam’s decision.
Managerial merry-go-rounds simply don’t occur in rugby with top positions hard to come by. Pat Lam was facing a sporting glass ceiling at the Sportsground with little chance of replicating the fairy tale of last season. George Hook came out and said that Joe Schmidt’s decision to stay on until 2019 may have played a prominent part but this is highly unlikely.
Money was evidently the central factor as some reports are suggesting that Lam will be on a staggering €750,000 a season. Although many Connacht fans may feel a little let down, the chance to earn this amount of money is quite rare.
Money in a different sense may also play a part, as even if Bristol do go down, they have financial backing that has rumoured them with names such as Ian Madigan and Ma’a Nonu in recent times. Compared to his current situation, this allows Lam all the resources he needs to recreate an entertaining, off-loading and, most importantly, successful side.
I feel we might have to cut him some slack. Despite the difficulty of reproducing last year’s campaign, very little was done to help him. Henshaw was inevitably lured away beyond the Pale while Cian Kelleher made the opposite switch westwards. He may be an exciting prospect but it isn’t even remotely comparable in terms of quality yet.
A few other internationals in Rodney Ah You and AJ MacGinty also departed, while the ridiculously underrated Aly Muldowney sought the greener fields of France. Marnitz Boshoff came from the Lions franchise but has been injured so far this year. How was Lam supposed to continue without any support from the IRFU who treat Connacht as a developing region despite them developing enough to win the league?
The talk of a replacement has already begun with internal promotion seemingly the favourite option as of now. Suggestions that Bernard Jackman may return from Grenoble make sense. His side pipped Connacht in last year’s European Challenge Cup quarter-final in a tremendous game of rugby that embodied the style in which both sides play. Lam’s Super Rugby style would be retained, while Jackman is no strangers to low funds, as Grenoble have the lowest budget in the Top 14.
It would provide Connacht with an experienced Irish manager, surely desirable qualities. Stuart Lancaster is also being touted as a possible successor. Lancaster has received undue criticism since the World Cup, while his foundational work in this current England side is completely overlooked. However, as much as I rate Lancaster his brutish style of rugby would not continue Connacht’s new way of playing the game.
Although fans will be disappointed, Lam’s tenure should be respected as one of monumental overachievement. Rugby’s Leicester doesn’t even do it justice in a sport where test-level players make such a difference. Lam may leave too soon and Connacht may struggle to replace him but he has left silverware, an outstanding brand of rugby and a young group of players who can only but improve further.