Is there such a thing as loyalty in professional sport? As quaint and antiquated as the notion is, surely fidelity still has merits? The question arises on the back of this week’s shock announcement that celebrated Connacht coach Pat Lam is departing at the end of the current season. Lam’s destination is the currently struggling, but upwardly mobile Bristol, a move made all the more attractive by the fact that the west country club is financed by billionaire benefactor, Stephen Lansdown. Connacht’s players and fans are understandably despondent at Lam’s untimely and unexpected departure. The Samoan coach has been incredible for the province, guiding the franchise to its first taste of silverware through last season’s Pro12 success. Sentiment aside, though, is Lam right to make the move?
There are, of course, commercial and financial factors underpinning all of this. In a free and open market, coaches and players can come and go as they please. Professional rugby has never been a more competitive and rewarding environment. If recent reports are to be believed, Lam’s package at Bristol is rumoured to be in the region of anywhere between £500,000 and £700,000 per annum. Yes, you read that correctly! That is a remarkable level of remuneration for a club rugby coach. Suffice to say, those colossal figures are considerably more than the ambitious Connacht could ever match.
But surely it’s about more than money? Lam is building something in Galway, something substantive that transcends material reward. The men from the Sportsground achieved an historic feat last season and they did so in terrific style. Lam’s brand of running, passing rugby was not only pleasing on the eye, it delivered the goods in emphatic fashion. Make no mistake about it, Connacht’s achievement last term was herculean and its magnitude is hard to convey fully in a couple of paragraphs. Let’s put it like this, though. Leicester’s footballers were rightly hailed for their wonderful Premier League achievement last season. As good as Leicester’s win was, I believe that Connacht’s achievement was even greater.
After all, this was a franchise that almost went out out of business in 2003. Connacht were finished, as extinct as the legendary Dodo, only for a last minute reprieve to save them as a professional entity. From that indubitably dark place, the Galway men emerged to become Pro 12 champions last year. What a metamorphosis. What a transformation. What a journey. And it’s the brilliant Lam who delivered it for them, building on the firm foundations laid by Michael Bradley, Eric Elwood and others. The achievement of the Connacht coach wasn’t just manifested on the rugby pitch, however. It was much more holistic and all embracing than that.
Lam has done so much to instil and inculcate a progressive, winning culture in the west of Ireland. Connacht are not so much improved as unrecognisable from their former selves. Yes, the players have been a revelation, but the primary credit must go to their head coach. Lam has been relentless and uncompromising in driving standards at the previously unheralded club. At last, the phrase “four proud provinces” has been invested with some meaning beyond a catchy marketing slogan or the verse of a dodgy Phil Coulter song. Lam will certainly be a tough act to follow. No wonder the players are concerned. Bundee Aki, in a moment he may or may not regret, has already tweeted to announce that he’s “pissed.”
Is it fair to blame Lam, though? I don’t see how it is. From what I’ve heard of him, the challenge in Bristol will appeal just as much as the obvious financial rewards. And it’s hard to blame anyone for wanting to develop and advance their professional prospects in a challenging role. One of the common descriptions of Lam in the last couple of days has been “career coach.” The term is levied almost pejoratively.
But surely everyone working in professional rugby is careerist to some extent? After all, Lam’s not working for the good of his health! Connacht’s coach has a young family and it would be quite wrong to begrudge him this unique opportunity, given all he’s done for Irish rugby. Professional coaching is predominantly results driven. It’s a precarious and fickle way to earn a living. More than ever, a coach needs to make hay while the sun shines. Lam’s departure is also symptomatic of an inflated and commercially driven rugby market. As in soccer, coaches can now enjoy the plentiful and unprecedented opportunities currently available.
And let’s not forget that Bristol’s recruitment of Lam is the flip side of Irish rugby’s burgeoning success. The better we get, the more vulnerable we are to losing key personnel. Witness the Premiership’s snapping up of Ulster veteran Dan Tuohy this week by, you’ve guessed it, Bristol! It’s always sad to see Irish rugby losing people they’ve invested a lot of time in, but that’s the nature of the beast. It’s a players’ market. And, increasingly, a coaches’ one, too. As for loyalty? Loyalty is a noble and laudable trait, but to the best of my knowledge, it’s yet to put food on anyone’s table. Good luck to Pat Lam.
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