Saturday 27 May 2017

Big shoes to fill but Lam's successor must have the right blend

Connacht's head coach Pat Lam will join Bristol as their new head coach in June. Photo: Jane Barlow/PA
Connacht's head coach Pat Lam will join Bristol as their new head coach in June. Photo: Jane Barlow/PA

Jim Glennon

Three Irish provinces atop their pools going into this weekend's return of the Champions Cup for one of it's annual highlights, the mid-season 'back-to-backs' - in normal circumstances, guaranteed to be the only rugby story in town. Not this week, however. The announcement of Pat Lam's triggering of the six-month notice clause in his contract to become one of the best-paid coaches in the game has dominated.

Interestingly, and notwithstanding the fringe elements of social media and talkshow texters, implicit in the general response has been the acceptance of the reality that rugby is a business and that Lam, like all his fellow coaches, is a professional for whom personal career prospects and family security will always be paramount. The Samoan took on the Connacht job in order to rehabilitate his career after a difficult time at the Auckland Blues and he achieved his objective, spectacularly; only the most irrational romantic could have expected him to stay in Connacht for an extended period.

If, from the perspective of Connacht and Irish rugby at least, his tenure is ending prematurely, his time in Galway can only be considered to have been a resounding success, transformational for team and province alike. As a career coach his tenure was never going to be anything but transient and all the more so when his success, and the holistic nature of it, marked him out as a coach of the highest calibre. The 'biggies' were bound to come knocking, and they duly did.

Once the revelry of Connacht's Pro12 win had subsided, the most important element was Lam's legacy. Player departures had already been well flagged, Ally Muldowney and Robbie Henshaw foremost among them, and if the recent announcements of the retention of Bundee Aki and Ultan Dillane were possibly of greater importance, their sustained reaction to this week's news will now be crucial.

That the offer which captured Lam came from Bristol, highly likely to be playing in the English second tier next season, once again highlights the commercial realities of the environment in which our franchises compete; the remuneration levels mentioned, combined with the near impossibility of repeating his accomplishments with Connacht, meant that the downsides of remaining in Galway were greater than any potential upsides.

The question now for Connacht CEO Willie Ruane and his board, in conjunction with David Nucifora and the IRFU, is the identification of the precise qualities required in Lam's successor.

There are elements which mark the job out as an attractive opportunity for any aspiring replacement, but the challenge of stepping into the void and trying to consolidate - and build and improve on Lam's legacy while all the time developing one's own career - is daunting.

David Campese spoke on Newstalk's Off the Ball show a fortnight ago about the Australian rugby culture, and identified Robbie Deans as the worst coach of their national team ever appointed by the ARU. The reason for his failure, according to 'Campo' at least, was that he was a Kiwi, and therefore incapable of either identification with or appreciation of the indigenous rugby 'culture'.

Our rugby 'culture' mightn't be as clearly discernable as Australia's, probably a consequence of our relatively recent emergence onto the bigger stages, but I do believe that in order to foster a culture and develop a truly Irish way of doing things successfully the causes of quality Irish coaches operating in tandem with overseas colleagues must be championed.

I believe that, to reach our potential and optimise our playing resources, a balance of backgrounds and influences is required in all our coaching and management teams - as evidenced by the recent additions, in differing roles, of quality external influences in Rassie Erasmus to Munster and Stuart Lancaster to Leinster.

Remarkably, Leo Cullen, having completed two seasons, will be the longest-serving provincial head coach in the country when Lam departs at season's end - a real indicator of the ever-increasing speed with the competitive landscape moves.

Lam has done an outstanding job with Connacht and we must presume that his inherent professionalism will ensure that his tenure is seen out without any slippage in standards. While it would be nice to see one of our own succeed him, 'nice' doesn't cut it in the business of sport. Balance, on the other hand, is essential.

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