Brendan Fanning: Pat Lam isn't taking a backward step by leaving Connacht - he may have landed the job of a lifetime
It was interesting to hear a radio reporter this morning describe Pat Lam’s end of season move to Bristol as “a backward step.”
The rationale for this was that Bristol are bottom of the Premiership with no wins from 10 games. When Lam was let go from Auckland four years ago Connacht had just finished eighth in the PRO 12 – good going by their standards, but nobody was telling the Samoan he had just landed the job of a lifetime.
On the other hand Bristol may be just that. Their ambition is to do what Toulon have done. And they have both the fan-base and financial muscle to deliver on that. Lam will be far more aggressive on the recruitment front than Andy Robinson was. Ditching Robinson after just seven games this season – former Ireland kicking coach Mark Tainton took over as interim – illustrates where they want to go.
The danger for Lam is that his first season will have promotion as its target. And while the stats are grim, Bristol play Worcester in a relegation battle on St Stephen’s Day. A home win there could transform a season that already is looking brighter for them with two losing bonus points in their last three games – and in the third they lost by eight points. They are not patsies.
Moreover Lam will need to invest in heavy duty dungarees to trouser the cash Bristol will throw at him personally. If that is a penny less than £500,000 then it will be a surprise. Could Connacht live with that?
Clearly the timing of the announcement is not great, and Lam will find it hard now to get through the rest of the season. Everything he does in Galway from this point onwards is against the backdrop that come summer he’ll be gone. Bristol needed the positive PR though, so you’d imagine they forced his hand on getting the good news into the public domain.
Lam understands how the game works though. It was noticeable that when the world and its wife were showering him with praise for last season’s achievements he was always circumspect about the future. Making long term personal plans in professional sport is a worthless exercise. Especially when you’re doing it against the backdrop of humongous over-achievement.
Indeed you’d imagine that as soon as Lam’s hangover cleared post Murrayfield last season he started working on his exit strategy. Quitting while you’re ahead is a difficult trick to pull off, but such has been his positive impact in the west you wouldn’t back against it.
And to think he was only third on the list of candidates to replace Eric Elwood back in 2012. Sean Holley and Alex King both knocked Connacht back before Lam agreed to take over. His faith in his own system, on and off the field, has been the outstanding feature of his time at the Sportsground. And its success means that the only question on the lips of Bristolians will be ‘how high’ when Lam asks them to jump. This is an overwhelmingly positive game-changer for him. Not bad for a “backward step.”