Every reason for Pat to go on the Lam!

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.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia: By supernova3688 from Flickr [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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All Hail The Underdog!

The underdog (once an endangered species in sport) is making a welcome and sensational comeback. Witness Leicester’s City’s remarkable triumph as Premier League winners as cast-iron proof that supposedly impossible dreams sometimes come true. All season long, we all wondered when Claudio Ranieri’s trailblazing side would come off the rails, but to the Italian’s eternal credit he managed to get unfashionable, ordinary Leicester over the finishing line. Leicester’s title win is an incredible feat, a victory borne from tenacious endurance and an indefatigable spirit. In an era of grim hyperbole, Ranieri’s achievement is the real deal, a truly remarkable feat that will be cherished for decades to come.

The Foxes’ victory would be worthy  of celebration in any era, but coming as it does in the context of billionaire sugar daddies and astronomical TV deals, Leicester’s title is nothing short of miraculous. It must also be immensely satisfying for the genial Ranieri on a personal level. The former Chelsea boss was once vilified and castigated as a well-meaning eccentric, a talented manager whose undoubted potential was curtailed by erratic team selections. How times have changed! Such unfair characterisation has been permanently cast aside, as Ranieri’s charges romped home with composed, ruthless determination. What makes Leicester’s achievement  so incredible is that it has been crafted with comparatively meagre resources. The champions of 2016 simply haven’t got the financial or political clout to justify a title challenge in the modern game, let alone a win. To  outflank their more illustrious rivals in such emphatic fashion ranks as one of the greatest sporting  achievements in recent times. From Tinker man to managerial genius. It has been quite a journey.

It hasn’t generated as many column inches, but another fantastic and wondrous underdog story is happening on this side of the Irish Sea. Pat Lam’s Connacht haven’t won anything tangible (not yet anyway) but their Pro12 achievement stands alongside that of Leicester’s footballers in terms of historical significance. The western province has led the way throughout the regular Pro12 standings, playing a style of rugby that is enterprising and innovative. Creativity practically oozes from the Galway men these days, and a regularly jam packed Sportsground is testament to their attractiveness for supporters. What makes Connacht’s feat genuinely remarkable as it it has come out of what can only be described as sporting oblivion. Traditionally labelled the “Cinderella province”,  it is easy to forget that just over a decade  ago, Connacht were threatened with professional extinction. The IRFU considered disbanding Ireland’s fourth professional franchise, only to have a last minute change of heart, partly inspired by a popular outcry against the decision. Connacht’s revival, therefore, must be viewed in this context of uncertainty. One hopes the men in green finish the job, but regardless of their final league position, Lam has done phenomenal work at the Sportsground.

There is something about unexpected success that sparks the soul of sports fans. Such victories are as elusive as they are laudable, but I don’t believe that is the reason we eulogise underdog wins to such an extent. Winning against the odds (in any walk of life) inspires the romantic and idealistic within all of us. But such wins also scream possibility and hope. We all constrain ourselves with self-imposed limitations, but truly great things can be accomplished if sufficient belief is marshalled. For if Leicester and Connacht can do it, anyone can. All hail the underdog. Events as rare as hens’ teeth deserve to be celebrated for the miracles they are. Jamie Vardy has every right to have a party.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey