Saturday 24 August 2019

Lam's greatest legacy can be a province fully convinced of its right to sup at the top table

Connacht head coach Pat Lam. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Connacht head coach Pat Lam. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Pat Lam's managerial achievement at Connacht is one of the finest in the history of Irish sport. Like Stephen Kenny and Ger Loughnane, he brought a team to a level which nobody suspected might be possible for them and, in doing so, profoundly changed the landscape of their game.

A few brave runs in the Challenge Cup notwithstanding, Connacht had been playing a distant fourth fiddle in Irish rugby before Lam arrived three years ago. In the 10 Celtic League/Pro12 seasons before the New Zealander's arrival Connacht had never finished higher than eighth. From 2004-05 to 2009-10 they finished bottom every single time.

This fitted in perfectly with a long history of futility and failure. Connacht were the province which had never won an interprovincial title, though they shared it on three occasions in the '50s and '60s. Before that championship was wound up in 2002, Connacht came bottom 45 times out of 56, winning just 27 matches out of 181. Connacht were the whipping boys' whipping boys. This long history of underachievement culminated in the IRFU's decision in 2003 to abolish the province entirely.

The reaction of the Connacht fans showed that there is more to a team than results and that the province's tradition of hanging in there like the cat on that famed hot tin roof deserved respect. But until Lam showed up at the Sportsground Connacht were the sentimental favourites who might pull off one shock result a year if they were lucky, but would never really upset the natural order of things.

So when the province emerged as title contenders in last season's Pro12 there was still a tendency to wait for the old pattern to re-establish itself. Instead Connacht kept winning, eventually earning a final showdown against Leinster. The national media consensus in the run-up to the decider seemed to be that it would be good for Leinster to end the season on a winning note. There was some chiding of Connacht for not agreeing to have the final moved to the Aviva, something which would have provided the Leinster fans with a bit of a treat in their home city.

That kind of presumption made Connacht's subsequent destruction of Leinster in the final at Murrayfield one of the most refreshing victories of the season. In the first 20 minutes, as Connacht ran their mighty rivals absolutely ragged, it was hard not to chuckle at the sheer effrontery of it all. The poaching of Robbie Henshaw had shown yet again that the attitude which almost saw Connacht abolished hasn't changed much. Like one of those old-fashioned Tory MPs who at heart can't really bring himself to think of Ireland as an actual country, the 'Leinster rugby man' seems to regard Connacht as an unimportant annexe to the mainland whose pretensions towards independent status are a mere delusion. That was one sweet win in Edinburgh.

Given the heroics of the November internationals it's easy to forget how low morale in Irish rugby was after awful Six Nations and Heineken Cup campaigns before Connacht's exploits provided a spark. That Pro12 victory also gave the big three a timely boot up the arse. Because if Connacht can do that well with their resources, there's not really much of an excuse for the other provinces to underperform.

There's a kind of fatalistic West of Ireland attitude which can never see a sunny day without thinking of how much rain there's going to be when this spell breaks. Last week's announcement of Lam's departure to Bristol at the end of this season does seem to confirm the too-good-to-be-true feeling at the end of last term. Yet there is plenty left to play for.

The win over Toulouse in the European Cup, in its own way almost as impressive as the Pro12 final result, gives the province a decent shot at a quarter-final place. And there is work to be done to gain one of the six places - Connacht are eighth at the moment - to make it into next year's edition of the premier club tournament. A return to the Pro12 play-offs looks less likely.

However things pan out, the Lam years have been the greatest in the history of Connacht rugby. He will move on but you'd hope the legacy he has left behind, of a province fully convinced of its right to sup at the top table, remains.

The people who marched to save Connacht rugby 13 years ago showed a lot more vision than the people who wanted to destroy it. They were dreamers. But I'm not sure if they ever dreamed of somebody quite like Pat Lam.

Go n-éirí an bóthar leat, a Phádraig.

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