Connacht rugby still in shock after Lam decides to leave at end of season

FULL-back Tiernan O’Halloran believes a victory over Scarlets in Connacht’s final home Pro12 game of the season would be a fitting send-off for the province’s head coach Pat Lam and his assistant Conor McPhillips, both of whom depart at the end of this campaign. With Lam, who impressively guided the Westerners to the Pro12 title last May, and McPhillips set to head up the coaching staff at Bristol Rugby next season, Saturday game against Scarlets at the Sportsground (7:35pm) should prove to be an emotional occasion for all concerned, particularly given this could be the last time Connacht will field at home during the current campaign. It is possible, of course, that should Connacht finish eighth in the Pro12 table, and win their subsequent playoff game against English opposition, that they could then have a home play-off to get into next season’s Champions Cup. This would not happen, however, if they finished in seventh and, so, this could be the only time Connacht players and supporters can show their appreciation for Lam and McPhillips. It is not lost on O’Halloran. “There is a massive appreciation for the work the lads have done,” he says. “Obviously, Conor has been here for a long time, being a past player as well. Even though he wasn’t our official backs coach, he would have done a lot of our attack work with the backs and it was a reason we functioned so well. “So, there is a lot of appreciation for the work the lads have done and there is definitely that respect. As a collective, we would definitely like to show massive appreciation for the work the lads have done. We are kind of hoping though to have another game at home, but we will have to wait to see how results go.” For McPhillips part, he says he is not giving the occasion too much thought as he is fully focused on preparing the players for Scarlets. “To be honest, I haven’t thought about it like that. You don’t get time to think about it at the start of the week because you are game planning and stuff like that. “I am here a long time though and there are a lot of good people here. I am leaving a place which has changed so much since I first came at the start (of the professional era). So, it has been a pleasure to be here and it will be emotional,” confesses McPhillips, who played with the province between 2003 and 2008 before taking up a coaching role. No doubt, McPhillips would love to conclude his time at Connacht with a home win but he says that in order for that to happen, the Westerners must improve on recent performances, especially in executing their try-scoring opportunities. Indeed, he acknowledges it is frustrating. “We just didn’t take those opportunities. Obviously, we would be disappointed if we weren’t creating opportunities and we didn’t have all this but at the same time we need to execute them. That has been the big emphasis since Leinster. For more, read this week’s Galway City Tribune.

THE last time Pat Lam left a high-profile rugby job, the circumstances were very different.  Sacked by the Auckland Blues in 2012 after winning just four out of 16 games, the Samoan’s coaching career had hit rock-bottom.

The criticism in New Zealand was rough and he suffered “racial abuse”. Worse still, his rugby life was encroaching on his family’s private life: his four-year-old daughter one day opened the door to television cameras and a media pack thirsty for headlines.

The fact he was jobless for seven months, and had five children and his wife, Steph, to support, made it easier to lure him to the West of Ireland.

The philosophy and foundation laid by Eric Elwood at the club encouraged him to move to Galway but providing for his family was equally as important. He went from zero to hero in four years.

Now he’s leaving Connacht Rugby early after an unprecedented successful stint but motivations are the same: Bristol’s rugby ambitions chime with his values and vision; and they have the cash that will allow him to secure his family’s future.

Lam is no mercenary but, of course, the money helps. He has reportedly signed a contract with Bristol worth between €500,000 and €750,000 annually, which would make him one of the highest paid coaches in the Northern Hemisphere, even greater than most international coaches.

“I’ve never ever been about money,” insisted Lam, flanked by Connacht CEO Willie Ruane and full back Tiernan O’Halloran at Wednesday’s press conference in which he explained in detail why he has chosen to trigger the get-out clause in his five-year contract and move to the struggling Southwest of England club at the end of the 2016/2017.

“The offer allows me to look after my family, and to continue in a coaching environment very similar to Connacht and that inspires me,” he said.

Lam revealed that he had been head-hunted by another club last year but he turned down the offer because he felt he wouldn’t be able to look Elwood, and others, in the eye if he had left after just three seasons.

Much has changed in the interim.  Lam guided Connacht to win its first ever trophy, and in some style, with an historic PRO 12 final victory last season. Before he arrived, the province had never finished higher than seventh in the league.

Waving a copy of Connacht’s ‘Vision and Strategy’ document, which he developed with other key figures in Connacht, Lam said he was leaving long-term structures in place that will outstay him.

On Monday, after dropping the bombshell to his management and players, Lam had a private meeting with hooker Tom McCartney, whom he worked with in Auckland and persuaded to come to Galway.

For more, read this week’s Galway City Tribune.