Saturday 26 May 2018

Lam’s men reach their final destination

Samoan coach has transformed Connacht with ambitious vision, focus on skills, attacking game-plan and judicious recruitment

The battle of the coaches between Pat Lam and Leo Cullen will be crucial. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile
The battle of the coaches between Pat Lam and Leo Cullen will be crucial. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile
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Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

This morning at 7.30, Pat Lam will join his entire backroom team in the lobby of their Edinburgh hotel and they will take to the streets of the Scottish capital for a 5km run.

Whether it's snowing in Siberia or sunny in Treviso, every member of the management is expected to rouse themselves and engage in the ritual. Together they take on the city's streets, before turning their attention to the team who are attempting to make history.

At 5.25 this evening, John Muldoon will lead his team out of the tunnel and on to the Murrayfield pitch for their first final. Eighty minutes stand between them and a trophy.


Theirs has been the story of the season, and the province's transformation under Lam must go down as one of the great coaching achievements in Irish rugby, even if they fail to get the job done today.

When he first touched down in Galway in the spring of 2013 at the invitation of the man he was replacing, Eric Elwood, the former Samoa captain was a big name with a damaged reputation.

His final season as head coach of Auckland Blues had been an unmitigated disaster that had clearly taken a toll on his spirit and he wasn't even Connacht's first choice.

Lam had barely got his feet under the table when chief executive Tom Sears exited the stage, and he spent most of his first season fire-fighting above while trying to get performances on the pitch.

They finished that campaign ninth in the table, but experienced the high of beating Toulouse away in the Heineken Cup, a result Lam recalls as "a massive turning point".

The key factor that the coach would point to at the end of it all was the seven losing bonus points that his side had picked up along as an indication that his team was not as far away as it seemed.

Off the pitch, Lam brought a zealous nature to his task, speaking of the vision he had for Connacht.

At the end of that season, the head coach compared the province to the Chiefs of Waikato who, with additional support from the NZRU, had just won two Super Rugby titles on the bounce. It sounded fanciful, but there was no doubting that he believed in his message.

The squad Lam inherited was largely a young one, with Dan Parks still on the books along with a couple of experienced Connacht campaigners like John Muldoon, Gavin Duffy and Michael Swift on board.

Every member of the panel was handed a rugby ball to take care of at the beginning of the campaign as if to accentuate the importance of their skill development, while every morning the players would greet each other with a secret handshake and the words 'dia duit'.

Those were the kind of details that grabbed attention, but behind the scenes at training far more important work was being done as Lam looked to develop his players' skills and change the way they have played.

Skills coach Dave Ellis devised drills to improve their basic skills in every facet of the game to be implemented by the unit coaches. Players had individual targets to meet and submitted weekly reports to the coaching team on their development.

This season, they have turned heads with skills under pressure and no-holds-barred approach to attack, but the players say that the game-plan has not changed from day one.

"Maybe in the first week we were a bit shocked," Tiernan O'Halloran recalled. "With Eric and Brads (Michael Bradley) it was kind of always very similar all the time. We hadn't really changed it much.

"So for someone to come in and just have everything completely changed. . . it was a bit strange, and there was a bit of laughing and joking at the start.

"But, if Pat caught you without a ball you weren't laughing too much longer. We quickly realised that he was being serious and was trying to build something special here.

"It's the same with the game-plan. . . he put that in place three years ago, but it's taken a lot of time and a lot of dropped balls and a lot of practice to finally get it to work."


Increased IRFU funding had allowed Connacht to improve the facilities and put together an impressive backroom team, while the province were exempt from the union's restrictions on overseas players.

That allowed Lam to bring Chiefs captain Craig Clarke and Auckland prospect Jake Heenan with him when he arrived, but he lost the experienced second-row at the end of his first campaign.

Recognising the need to improve the squad and add experience, he travelled home during the Six Nations to spread the gospel.

He managed to convince Super Rugby starters Bundee Aki and Tom McCartney to join him on three-year deals.

Munster and Glasgow were in for Aki and his decision to join Connacht provoked the public ire of Rob Penney, and the sound of the other provinces grumbling was an indication that the poor relation were ruffling feathers.

While the capture of All Black centurion Mils Muliaina grabbed headlines around the world, it was the lesser known Kiwis who have made the far greater impact.

Lam didn't just sign up New Zealanders, he was willing to scour the Ulster Bank League for talent, while the Academy has produced a number of gems.

To make room for his new signings, the head coach made some tough calls and showed a ruthless streak when he informed Duffy that his contract would not be renewed.

Year two got off to a flier as the Kiwi-style game-plan clicked and, when Aki and McCartney arrived, the momentum was firmly behind the Westerners as they surged into the top four.

Behind the scenes, the appointment of former full-back Willie Ruane as chief executive and return of Elwood as domestic games manager strengthened the organisation behind Lam, while Duffy joined the marketing team.

The introduction of meritocracy to the Pro12 opened a door to European qualification and Connacht responded with a strong start, but they couldn't sustain it and things were already beginning to turn when they exited the Challenge Cup at the hands of Gloucester,.

That night will be remembered for the sight of Muliaina being hauled away in handcuffs for questioning. Although he was subsequently released without charge, the footage was beamed around the world and was damaging to the province.

Lam himself was hit with an €8,000 fine for comments about referee Leighton Hodges in the aftermath of a controversial defeat as the campaign threatened to unravel as the injury count rose and they ultimately missed out on the Champions Cup due to a play-off defeat on their return to Gloucester.


Perhaps that defeat was no bad thing, because the sole focus of this campaign has been Pro12 success.

With Robbie Henshaw and Nathan White their only absentees, Connacht made hay during the World Cup, but when the other teams retained their internationals there was no sign that the early pace-setters were about to let up.

When they beat Munster at Thomond Park for the first time in 29 years, they began to think this could be a special season.

As the weeks went on, the goals changed from top six and the Champions Cup to the final four and a home semi-final. Wins over Leinster, Munster and Glasgow Warriors did the trick as tickets for the Sportsground became harder to come by by the week.

Losing to Grenoble in a Challenge Cup quarter-final shoot-out showed them they had work to do on defence, while their attacking game saw them score 60 tries in the regular season.

It hasn't all been plain sailing. Henshaw will leave this summer and their failure to hold on to their greatest Academy prospect is a blow. Yet, they have also convinced one of Leinster's hottest properties to move the other way in Cian Kelleher.

The success and the style has inspired a whole generation of new fans, while the province have actively announced their intention to grow with their strategic plan and a new stadium is in the offing.

"The culture has changed and the mindset has changed a lot," captain Muldoon said yesterday.

"We are able to beat anyone and are able to put anyone to the sword away from home. That was a big thing that has changed this season."

As they make their way around the sleepy Edinburgh streets this morning, there will be a moment for Lam and his team to realise how far they've come.

They have reached their final destination. History beckons.

Irish Independent

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