Typical Monday morning here in the City of the Tribes; buoyant Connacht fans around the office after a resounding 47-8 demolition of Treviso at the weekend and looking forward to taking on Wasps in European Cup action next weekend. This all changed when Connacht Rugby issued a press release stating that head coach Pat Lam was leaving at the end of the season and assuming the Bristol Rugby head coaching position from the start of next season. Hawkeye Sidekick evaluates the news and wonders what the implications are for Connacht going forward.
The announcement has taken plenty of rugby observers by surprise in Ireland but it is this time of year when players and coaches often make their decisions on where they will be plying their trade next season such as James Hook’s announcement on his return to Ospreys from Gloucester last week.
The timing though on the eve of a pivotal four week window in the season where Connacht will face the likes of Wasps, Ulster and Munster is a bit odd. The team will be unsettled by the news; the twitter reaction from the likes of Bundee Aki who recently signed a contract to stay at the club primarily down to the assumption that Lam was staying put speaks volumes. Wasps’ away was difficult enough without having to get the squad in the right mindset in the coming days.
People will have their own theories on why Pat Lam has made the decision. The lure of Bristol Rugby, a rugby union hotbed in the England West Country is probably one with an excellent stadium in Ashton Gate and owners who are prepared to invest heavily into the squad. I think personally the infrastructure and additional revenue stream factors have lured Lam away from the Sportsgrounds.
Sportsgrounds: Upgrade Question
The long term vision of Connacht is essentially built on the premise that the Sportsgrounds or new stadium will be built. The 2023 Ireland RWC bid snub was a damaging blow for anyone connected with Connacht Rugby and huge questions on potential funding for Connacht infrastructural upgrades required to maintain the momentum of recent success for the club both on and off the pitch do now exist. Did Pat Lam feel that the Connacht long term vision was never going to be a reality given this development, without an upgraded stadium for the club to play their home games which would increase revenue streams?
One look at the current Bristol Rugby first team squad and it is evident that the owners are ambitious in their objectives for the club. Welsh influence is predominant with the likes of Ian Evans and Gavin Henson nestled with Pacific Islanders and homegrown talent including ex-Leicester Tiger Jordan Crane. The squad is stacked with internationals. How this side has not managed to win a game all season in the Aviva Premiership is baffling?
There are pretty ambitious plans in progress at Bristol Rugby. A new state of the art 27,000 capacity stadium http://www.bristol-sport.co.uk/stadium/the-plan/ which should lure Bristol Rugby fans to watch their team play in idyllic surroundings. 13,351 people attended their last home game against the Leicester Tigers; the fan base is there and with an upturn in results, more fans will come through the turnstiles. The potential at the club is something anyone in Pat Lam’s current role would be attracted to.
The Aviva Premiership TV deal is quite frankly head and shoulders ahead of the Pro 12 contract; 152 million TV deal is massive and is comparable with with French Pro 14 with a massive revenue stream chasm now opened up with the Pro 12 left behind. The revenue streams are endless for clubs such as Bristol Rugby who are just in their first season in the league; yes their form has being miserable but if they retain their league status at the end of the season, Lam will have more revenue to spend on recruitment to key areas and rugby club structures. Dan Tuohy’s name is being linked with the club; front five is an area where Bristol Rugby needs to upgrade.
What will Pat Lam bring to Bristol Rugby?
Lam was to quick highlight the contribution of Eric Elwood in his statement this morning to the media hoards but the Samoan passion for the sport, his ability to manage his squad, instill belief to a squad was key traits during his tenure with Connacht. His decision to look and identify young talent continued the legacy of Elwood was evident in his decision to introduce several prospects to the first team fold. You only have to look at the composition of the back line and the age profile as evidence of this. Lam has revitalized players such as Muldoon, Healy with the deliberate decision to adopt an expansive open game, a brave move but ultimately distinguished Connacht from the Pro 12 pack last season.
I have met Pat Lam several times in Galway and the one thing you can say about the guy is that he is loyal evident in the Leighton Hodges saga where he publically defended his club after a controversial loss to the Cardiff Blues and receptive to the fan base evident in his Connacht appearances at fan question nights or just talking about the game with bystanders on street corners. His infectious love for the game can only rub off on a team like Bristol Rugby.
Where now Connacht?
Connacht fans, players and management have only praise for Pat Lam. He will be sorely missed by the province but it is time to reflect and make an astute decision on Lam’s successor. There will be plenty of candidates sending their resume to the club this week but Connacht Rugby need to identify the right man to lead the team to even higher standards. Continuity could be a distinct option; hire from within to remain the standards set and allow a transparent managerial change. Tim Allnutt could fit the bill perfectly; a candidate who understands the Connacht Rugby ethos and is aware of the long term vision of the club.
There will be other interested parties. IRFU may be keen to hire an Ireland candidate to the role. Bernard Jackman or Jeremy Davidson are names which will be mentioned given their successful time in French Rugby. Would the opportunity be of interest to someone like Ronan O’Gara? Andy Farrell’s name potentially could come into the reckoning also.
Connacht fans may be disappointed today but the future is still bright. With signings of Aki, Bealham and Dillane long term secured, Connacht have a youthful team whose niche of attacking rugby will only become stronger. The upcoming head coach position role appointment is critical to the success of the club long term; it is not a time for Connacht to wallow in this departure; it should be used to galvanize the province to achieve the long term vision of the club but it requires all parties (IRFU, Galway City Council, Club Board, Fans, Players) to work together to get the infrastructural upgrades required to propel Connacht to the next level. IRFU needs a strong Connacht now and the next couple of months will be viewed with interest around the country.