Tuesday 17 September 2019

Lam's grand plan coming together as he looks to make more history

John Muldoon at the launch of the limited edition Connacht Green Lantern jersey yesterday
John Muldoon at the launch of the limited edition Connacht Green Lantern jersey yesterday
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

For the last three weeks, Pat Lam and Connacht have been able to look down from on high and survey the land below.

The longest-serving head coach in Irish provincial rugby, his side are enjoying the rarified air of being top of the league while their neighbours struggle to come to terms with the season.

New faces Leo Cullen and Les Kiss are enduring a hellish start to life at the top, coping with deflated World Cup returnees and European underperformance.

Anthony Foley, in year two of his Munster reign, is beginning to feel comfortable about life in the top job and his team could leapfrog Connacht with a home win on Saturday, but, with a number of key personnel out of action, question marks continue to hover over the Reds.

Lam, meanwhile, in year three of his planned five-year stay in the west of Ireland, can only be happy with how things are going.

His first season saw poor league performances masked by a win in Toulouse, while last year's strong start couldn't be sustained as they fell just short of Champions Cup qualification.

Now, they sit a-top the Guinness Pro12 after seven games and lead their Challenge Cup pool having won both their games which included a character-building trip to Siberia. For all of the off-field challenges they endured in Russia, Saturday's visit to Thomond Park will be a real test of how far they've come.

"If you look through the last number of years at how much history we've actually broken, even now I think this is the most number of games we've actually won on the trot," Lam said of their seven successive wins.

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"We haven't even talked about that, we've just read it (elsewhere). It's about, 'Here's another chance for us to play'. I think I've bored quite a few people here talking about process, but that's exactly what it is. Every day we come here and, regardless of what the weather is like, we go and make sure we train well.

"We were there in that top four/six last year too and we fell away at the end, so we know that to look at it now is foolish. Our focus is to look at this game as purely four points."

New Zealand coaches love to talk about culture, but that work ethic and focus on the processes are all part of what Lam is trying to instil in his team in order to take the next step. Yet, the discourse surrounding their young stars remains the same.

The rugby world expects Robbie Henshaw to move away to pursue his career at the end of this season, meaning once again the province would have to replace a talent they played a part in producing.

Since arriving in 2013, Lam has endeavoured to improve the playing quality on the pitch and the culture on it. If he leaves after five years in 2018 having done enough to convince players of international quality that playing for Connacht is a genuine option then he'll have done good work.

"Part of the reason I came here, was to make sure as a whole organisation that we understand who we are, where we come from and where we are going. That makes everything," he explained at the Lifestyle Sports event to launch the 'Green Lantern' jersey they'll wear against Munster.

"It's exciting times for Connacht because for young guys coming in, whether they're from here or from outside, they get inspired by that. So it's all tracking nicely, but there is a long way to go still," Lam said.

"You are dealing with people and we are talking about a physical game. Everyone is different, you have got individuals that are all completely different.

"Connacht is never about the individual, it's about what the individual can do for the team. In rugby there is the game, but there is the culture and the leadership.

"I've been very fortunate to be playing and coaching successful teams, but I've also been very fortunate to be around successful teams. Those are the three things: you get you leadership, culture and game right and you can go from there. That can take one, two or three years, but everyday is a learning process for that."

Lam can certainly sell the dream as proven by his recruits from overseas but his greatest challenge may be convincing Henshaw to stay. Results can help and being top of the table allows him to do it more convincingly. To stay there, they'll have to win at a venue where their last success came in 1986 as second-placed Munster will leapfrog them with victory.

The injury list that has expanded to include Nepia Fox Matamua, Eoin McKeon, Dave McSharry and Ben Marshall won't help, but they're soaring high and believing in what they're doing. Another win might help convince more doubters.

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