Sunday 20 January 2019

'He has been outstanding' - Pat Lam hails Ian Madigan and sets ambitious target for Bristol's Premiership adventure

Ian Madigan will be hoping to maintain his good form for Bristol. Photo: Getty
Ian Madigan will be hoping to maintain his good form for Bristol. Photo: Getty
David Kelly

David Kelly

Ashton Gate in Bristol has seen a variety of celebrated visitors this season, from Pogba to Zlatan, Pep to Aguero.

But on this Friday, some locals will greet the arrival of an unheralded collection of rugby players from Doncaster with much more enthusiasm.

For former Connacht coach Pat Lam and his side, amongst them Irish international out-half Ian Madigan, their majestic sweep to the top flight of English rugby will be confirmed when they parade the championship trophy at the final whistle.

Their promotion has long been stamped with formality; some might say it was inevitable before a ball was even kicked, such is the strength of a squad featuring 14 international players.

But for the Samoan, the journey is only beginning and, as he already begins to cast his eyes beyond his second season in charge, Connacht folk do not need to be reminded what harvests can accrue from the last leg of a Pat Lam-authored three-year plan.

"Everyone has been saying that we need to survive when we got up," said the man who led the unheralded westerners to PRO12 glory in 2016.

"They said the same in Connacht, that it was just about survival. But no, we plan to be a Champions Cup team, just as we had bigger plans with Connacht.

"You need to set the goals higher so that all the work you do is purposeful. Winning the Championship allows us into the Premiership which allows us to then get in the Champions Cup.

Pat Lam. Photo: Sportsfile
Pat Lam. Photo: Sportsfile

"I want it ASAP. We need to be in the top six and that's the aim in my third year."

Read more: Resilient McFadden keeps on coming back for more

One of the men embedded in the vanguard of that ambition will be Madigan, the mercurial talent exiled from Ireland since the last World Cup who, via an unhappy stint in Bordeaux, is revelling in the leadership and responsibility afforded him.

The white heat of the Premiership will be a radical shift in standards but Lam is convinced his man has the class to thrive, even if the player continues to forfeit his international ambitions by plying his trade abroad.

Any suggestions that the 29-year-old might fill the vacancy in Ulster, and hence propel himself back into Joe Schmidt's plans, are politely rebuffed by his current coach.

"I know he's going nowhere because he has just signed a three-year contract," smiled Lam, although Madigan has expressed a desire to return to Ireland at some stage; the pair's immediate aim is to do so with their West Country combo in the Champions Cup.

"He has been outstanding," continued Lam of the man who wallows in the side's commitment to winning entertainment.

"And added to how well he has played, he is one of the best place-kickers in world rugby.

"When I first arrived in Ireland, he was playing 12 then took over at 10 whenever Johnny Sexton was injured. I thought, 'Jeez, this kid is good.'

"We all know then what happened when Johnny left and Jimmy Gopperth came in. It seemed to me as if he was playing a certain way for one coach and not as successful for another.

"So when I was looking to sign him, I spoke to Joe Schmidt. Because the number one thing is the relationship between a player and a coach.

"Joe kept him accountable when he was there with him at Leinster and Ireland but they had a strong relationship.

"When I met him, I wanted to know what his goals were. He harbours an ambition to still play for Ireland.

"But before that, the number one thing for him was to really have an influence in a team and play the best rugby he can.

"That's what I wanted to hear and that was my role to help him. We have been really honest with each other.

"We're not getting carried away. He knows what he has done well and what he can do better. But he is a competitor and wants to be challenged, he wants feedback and guidances.

"He has embraced it all. I'm really excited to see what he can do at the next level."

The pair's cause is aided by a slew of international talent, from All Black No 8 Steve Luatua to Wallaby centre Luke Morahan, England international back-row Jordan Crane to Samoan World Cup star David Lemi.

The project is backed by local entrepreneur Steve Lansdown, the billionaire who remains determined to put the West Country city on the sporting map - he also runs Bristol City, as well as the local basketball, badminton and motor racing franchises.

Soccer is his primary passion but the synergy between all disciplines is key.

"I was at Bristol's games with Manchester United and City in the League Cup and my son had to explain to me who Paul Pogba was," laughs Lam, who spent much of his time in Ireland bewitched by a rather more earthier and substantive hero, Joe Canning.

"But Bristol's manager Lee Johnson is an interesting guy and when we met up, we found we discovered many of the same ideas about how a team builds a culture and tries to develop an identity.

"What I am trying to do here is similar to Connacht. You have got to have a game, but first the structures and systems to allow you to play that game. Then you have to have culture and leadership,

"When you're playing in a pressured environment where results are so important, you need to have that fundamental basis.

"Steve asked me to do what I did in Connacht. I said I don't just coach rugby. They gave me the support to put in place a vision.

"Vision drives leadership, leadership drives culture, culture drives performance.

"It's got to be more than just a game. I was courted by quite a few clubs when I left Connacht but I wasn't leaving for the sake of it.

"If the guys here just said they wanted to win today at all costs, I wouldn't have gone, I would have stayed with Connacht. There had to be a purpose."

Recent history suggests that purpose leads to prizes.

"This season is just another station on our journey."

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