Thursday 8 December 2016

In professional rugby nobody stays put forever - Pat Lam

Published 06/10/2016 | 02:30

Lam was offering no immediate comfort to Connacht supporters stressed at the prospect of losing the popular pair at the Champions Cup launch. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Lam was offering no immediate comfort to Connacht supporters stressed at the prospect of losing the popular pair at the Champions Cup launch. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Pat Lam is a positive man and it was no surprise that yesterday he put a positive spin on the news that his influential skills coach Dave Ellis would be returning to New Zealand in January.

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Ellis's time at Connacht has earned him a first job in Super Rugby with Tana Umaga's Auckland Blues and Lam is proud of the role he and the province have played in getting him there.

Yet, it is hard from the outside to escape the sense that the wheels are falling off the westerly wagon.

Ellis follows Andre Bell in departing from the Pro12-winning coaching ticket, while the coach did little to dispute the idea that Ultan Dillane and Bundee Aki will follow Robbie Henshaw, Aly Muldowney and AJ MacGinty out the door at the end of this season yesterday.

Lam was offering no immediate comfort to Connacht supporters stressed at the prospect of losing the popular pair at the Champions Cup launch. Munster have an interest in luring Tralee native Dillane home, while they are one of many suitors in the queue for Aki's signature.

Connacht's early-season form has made May's league win feel a long time ago, while the opening of Munster's state-of-the-art training facility has further emphasised the ground the western province must make up off the field despite their on-pitch success last year.

Yesterday, Lam was asked if he is confident of retaining Dillane and Aki beyond the expiration of their contracts at the end of the season and whether the IRFU could support the province in their desire to retain the pair.

"All of that negotiation is going on at the moment with Willie (Ruane, Connacht's chief executive) and (team manager)Tim Alnutt," he replied.

"And I am confident that they're here this year, and I am confident that the IRFU and our team are doing a great job."

Offered the chance to provide some comfort to fans, he was unable to do so. Ellis, like Bell, was credited with the huge improvements in skill-set that underpinned Connacht's league-winning campaign and while Lam was upbeat about his departure, the Samoan also is realistic about the professional game.

Asked if their departures, combined with player exits, is threatening the momentum he has generated, the coach was dismissive.

"Not at all, I've always said that at Connacht Rugby what we're trying to build with our plan is that it's not about the individual, it's about the system," he said.

"When I came here, I wanted a big focus on skills so I needed to set up the skills programme and needed someone to drive it and needed Dave to come in.

"All we need now is for that to continue and to follow through.

"It's the same with what we're setting up with how we play the game, it's one of the reasons that we're not as tuned as we were last year; we've guys stepping up and fulfilling the roles but we've just lost three front-liners for what could be a long time. The next guys have to step up and go into that system.

"In professional rugby, nobody is going to stay put forever but it can't be about just the individual or the coaching staff; people will move and you've got to set it up so that it's sustainable."

Lam is in discussions with Ruane about how to go about replacing Ellis and is taking the highly-rated coach's departure as an opportunity to review the skills programme.

And he is proud that Connacht have played a role in Ellis's journey to a top-level job in his homeland.

"It's an exciting opportunity for Dave," Lam said. "Dave was going to leave at the end of last season, because when I brought him over here it was always a short-term deal...

"At the end of the final, I pleaded with him to give me one more year and Dave agreed; but the best part about it is that on the back of the work that he's done and the success of Connacht the Blues came chasing him.

"It's a wonderful opportunity that he has a chance to be involved in professional rugby in New Zealand for the first time at Super Rugby level.

"So, I'm really pleased. Dave and I have been working through that in the last few weeks and it's an exciting chance for him.

"Myself and Willie Ruane have been looking at the whole skills' programme. We are having talks about the best structure. It started before the end of last season because I knew Dave was going, and I knew Andre Bell was keen to head back as well at some stage.

"All of that planning is in place, it's just a matter of when we execute, and what's going to be the best for where we currently are as a team and what's going to be the best for our squad structure."

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