Connacht's hopes of defending their Pro12 title next season have been dealt a major blow as their highly regarded backs coach Andre Bell has decided to return home to his native New Zealand.
The Westerners revealed that Bell has made the decision to leave the province to be with his family, which has paved the way for Conor McPhillips to take over the role.
Bell joined Connacht in 2014 and along with Pat Lam has played a major role in developing one of the most potent backlines in Europe.
Joe Schmidt, who like Bell previously coached at Bay of Plenty, was central to the recruitment of his fellow Kiwi in 2014 and was part of the interview panel when Lam was seeking a top-class appointment.
The likes of Robbie Henshaw, Matt Healy, Tiernan O'Halloran and Niyi Adeolokun have all flourished under Bell's watch and he leaves a considerable void.
McPhillips played with Connacht from 2003 to 2008 and since retiring became the head performance analyst in 2010 before last season working as Bell's assistant attack coach. Bell was also kicking coach but Connacht legend and current domestic manager Eric Elwood will undertake an advisory role with the first team next season as well as working with the kickers.
While Lam was disappointed to lose a coach of Bell's calibre, he believes McPhillips can build on the foundations laid by the Kiwi. "Andre spent many hours working with our young backline and gave them the confidence and skills to execute our game-plan effectively," Lam said. "Conor is hugely passionate about Connacht and has given many years of service - first as a player, then an analyst and now a coach.
"He has an impressive rugby brain with an eye for the fine detail that makes a big difference. I have every confidence that he will build on the good work that Andre has done and take it to another level necessary for next season.
"I believe that any team is only as good as the quality of the management team and the coaching group in place to run the programme. By striving to improve each player to become a better rugby player and a better person, we will improve as a team and I have a lot of confidence and belief in our coaching group that we can continue to do that."
Simon Kavanagh will take over from McPhillips as Connacht's head performance analyst. Jimmy Duffy (forwards) and Dave Ellis (skills) have again been confirmed as part of Lam's backroom team next season.