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Timing of Lam's bombshell is kick in the guts

By Tony Ward

I don't get the timing of this announcement at all. Let's get one thing clear: Pat Lam has revolutionised Connacht Rugby. Not only has he brought a winning mentality, and with it a first ever trophy, but he has engineered a style of play that is now the envy of teams everywhere.

He has proved, through an exhilarating brand of attacking rugby, that where the will exists there is a way.

Right from the get-go he bought into the rugby culture and the players bought into what this innovative coach was about.

It isn't pretty rugby for the sake of pretty rugby: it includes an aesthetic element for a purpose. And that purpose is winning through protecting possession - it's much easier, less energy sapping and far more enjoyable to play with the ball than without it.

As a fan of Lam and how he goes about his business - right down to players meeting and greeting each other daily, not to mention conversing through the cupla focal gaeilge - I confess to being taken aback at this decision. . . more than anything the timing of it.

The former Samoa captain has built on the excellent work of Eric Elwood and was spot on when he emphasised in a statement yesterday that "rugby is never about the individual, as players and coaches will always come and go".

It is clear that the vision of 'Grassroots to Green Shirts' is in an extremely strong place, but it's stating the obvious to say that it would be in an even stronger place if Lam were still in situ moving forward.

This is a kick in the gut for the game in the west, and let's not pretend otherwise.

Two questions not addressed in the Connacht statement leap out at me: why now? And why Bristol? And I think we can all guess the answer to the second question.

Perhaps Lam looked at the road ahead and, with Joe Schmidt signed up with the IRFU for at least another three years, he saw a clear block to his coaching ambition.

But what I find most difficult to grasp, given his reference to the amount of rugby "between now and the end of the season", is again the timing.

If the management is, as Lam says, "fully committed to our goals on and off the pitch heading into Champions Cup rugby this week on the back of so much work over the last number of years", then why now?

If I were a Connacht player - whether a regular, on the periphery, or in the Academy - this decision mid-season would shatter my trust in both the coach and the structure.

Lam has been a revelation. In rugby terms, the West is awake because of him. I don't envy chief executive Willie Ruane or the Connacht Professional Board in attempting to replace him.

I hope I am wrong, but given what he has achieved over the last four years, I think Lam is going to be as close as it gets to an impossible act to follow.

Put yourself in the shoes of a potential successor: do you attempt to replicate his unique possession based style or do you impose your own philosophy?

One assumes it will be the latter, thereby signposting a period of flux and change.

And all the guaranteed speculation about the identity of the successor in the weeks ahead certainly won't help.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that Saturday's trip to Coventry to play Wasps is the most difficult fixture of the season by far. Knowing your coach has his eye elsewhere (he is only human) means preparation will be far from ideal.

It is a professional business, so when a coach declares he is moving on, inevitably it leads to insecurity among players and backroom staff.

Plus the process of finding a successor undermines the position of the incumbent.

Maybe there is a simple reason why Lam's summer departure needed to be declared, but its timing ahead of back-to-back Champions Cup fixtures against Wasps followed by festive PRO12 derbies against Ulster and Munster makes no sense. It is the most critical month of the Westerners' season by a mile, and here they are embroiled in hype over a resignation that won't take place until the end of season.

Lam has been fantastic in every way since his arrival, bringing success and a style of rugby unprecedented in the history of the province.

He leaves some legacy but if, as appears to be the case, money proves the defining factor, his exit will leave a bitter taste.

He, more than any other individual, has turned Connacht rugby into the fourth strong province now standing shoulder to shoulder with the rest.

Connacht's loss will undoubtedly be Bristol's gain.

I just so wish it had been handled differently and kept under wraps until much later in the season at least. Different game, different values.

Belfast Telegraph

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