Thursday 23 November 2017

Brendan Fanning: Pat Lam's self-serving, semi-coherent and arrogant ramble has damaged his Connacht farewell

Pat Lam
Pat Lam
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

In late August, Connacht will play Bristol in the Sportsground as part of their pre-season warm-up.

Pat Lam, who will be coaching the away team by then, sees this fixture as a favour to his old club. You will be familiar with players describing any and all venues as “a hard place to go” by way of illustrating, tediously, how tough it is to win away from home. But we’ve never heard a coach describing his own gaff in that way.

Granted Galway is not a fly-direct location, but listening to Lam you’d think it is so far off the beaten track you’d need a team of Sherpas to find it. So, as he put it himself last week, the Bristol game is “a bit of a gift, and it’s something I want to do.” Cheers Pat.

That was the pay-off line in an interview that has served to damage further his farewell in the West. In a self-serving, semi-coherent and arrogant ramble, he chose to unload a few bullets in the direction of the IRFU, who hired him four years ago when Auckland didn’t want to keep him.  

The theme of his interview was that the presence of a six-months exit clause in his contract not only drove him out the gate, but threatens to do the same to others here, like Rassie Erasmus, Leo Cullen, Stuart Lancaster and Les Kiss. It is unclear, at least to us, the duration of the notice period in any of those men’s contracts, but whether it is six weeks or six months, it is hardly the key criterion in deciding whether any of them stay or go. Lam, however, claims it is the equivalent of a high hurdle.

“It was one reason I held off signing,” he said in the interview in The Irish Times. “I wasn’t comfortable with it right from the beginning. They gave me two years plus one; I wanted three, but they wanted the option to test if Pat was any good, and that’s fair enough, but the fundamental problem was the six months.”

Why? It’s a notice period, not a demand to clear your desk. Its presence is to give either side time to sort out an alternative arrangement if the current one is going south. Which is exactly where Connacht were headed after they won the Guinness Pro12 title last year.

We have acknowledged in these pages Lam’s phenomenal achievement in doing with Connacht what Claudio Ranieri did with Leicester City. Better still, Lam’s route was the scenic one. Fittingly, in a calendar year when for the first time they beat all three Irish rivals, they wrapped it up on a sunny Edinburgh afternoon playing Leinster off the field.

The second album however was a creative flop. Its chances of hitting the right notes receded after Lam announced his departure in early December. At least they did when it became clear that he was struggling with the distraction of Bristol in the background. Certainly the view among his paymasters, and some within his own organisation, was not so much that he was falling asleep at the wheel, but that one of his cheeks was in a different vehicle altogether.

Lam acknowledges that things became “very difficult” for the players as well as some of the staff, but maintains it motivated him to “tick every box.” And he’s right in so far as a man who announces his departure halfway through the season can’t hope to have the same positive influence thereafter. It’s an imperfect system. Deal with it.

But it wasn’t Connacht who asked him to tick the box when Bristol offered to double his salary. That was entirely his own doing. And in a professional sport he would have been mad in the head not to accept such a lucrative offer: to leave a club with whom he had reached a peak, and join one with huge potential. Where do I sign?

The galling bit was that soon after the deal was made public he chose to palm it off in another direction. If he was speaking in riddles last week about his contract then it was in the same ballpark as his comments after the funeral of Anthony Foley.

One minute his decision to leave was not about the money; the next it was about the money but only because the sight of Anthony Foley’s widow clarified for him the need to provide as best he could for his family. So it was the fickleness of life itself as much as the capricious nature of professional sport that was dragging him away, kicking and screaming, from Connacht rugby?

We all want to do our best for our families. Some of us take out life assurance. Pat Lam could have sorted a five-star policy and kept his mouth shut about Olive Foley and her kids. He could have sold his departure as a straightforward business decision, made difficult by the emotional ties he had with Connacht, but business nonetheless. And the well-wishers would have clapped him all the way down the College Road. Instead, right up to him taking the plane this week, he has been unravelling the pretty package that was the 2015/16 Pro12 campaign. Slán go fóill.

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