Pat Lam’s interview for the Connacht job at Dublin airport left him in no doubt as to the ambition of his prospective new employers. They spelt it out in strikingly simplistic terms.
“We want to be the number one province in Ireland,’’ they told him. “And we want to get there in five years.’’
The meeting took place four years ago this week (Nov 21), straight after Lam had witnessed Samoa renewing their historic habit of taking Wales to the cleaners in Cardiff. No sooner had he presided over his ancestral island outscoring their hosts 3-1 on tries than Connacht had the Samoan coach flying across the Irish Sea.
When they hit him with the loftiest of goals, Lam did not fall off his chair. The Connacht delegation would almost certainly have fallen off theirs had their prospective new coach seen the future.
If only Nostradamus been there to advise him, Lam might have responded with a goal of his own beyond Connacht’s wildest dreams. “You know what? Never mind about being No. 1 in Ireland, what about being No. 1 in the Guinness PRO12?
“And, with a bit of luck, it won’t take us as long as five years. We could manage it in three.’’
And so it came to pass, Connacht’s rise to champions of Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales providing wondrous reaffirmation of the biblical prophecy about the last being first.
Six months on from winning the trophy in a style worthy of the occasion, Connacht are being assailed by a truism as ancient as sport itself.
If reaching the mountain top ahead of the pack is tough, staying there is doubly so. Last season they lost seven of their regulation 22 fixtures before delivering those unforgettable victories over the Warriors in the play-off semi-final followed by Leinster in the final.
Matching that run into the play-offs again this season will require winning 13 of their 15 remaining games. The temptation is to dismiss it as the tallest of orders except that Connacht have consistently proved no order to be too tall.
“Our main goal is to finish in the top six,’’ Lam said, eyes fixed on qualifying for the Champions’ Cup again next season. “I’m very confident we’ll get there although I know a lot of things have to go our way.
“There’s no doubt that, as the holders, everyone in the Guinness PRO12 is gunning for you. Was it a hangover? No, it wasn’t. And to make it all the tougher, we’ve been hit by massively by injuries, mainly to props.
“For the first time ever we were faced with a situation where we lost three weeks of our pre-season due to the late finish of the last one. It was virtually June by the time we finished and we were back in July after the shortest break of all.
“Then we had seven guys away with Ireland which, for Connacht, was unheard of. We arranged three pre-season games and had two of them cancelled, by Narbonne and Bristol. We tried to get alternative fixtures but everyone was booked so we went into the season under-cooked.
“Our first two home games were against teams with big points to prove, the Warriors and Ospreys. So it was the perfect storm. We made a great start last year because our preparation was right. We’re already booking games for pre-season next year.’’
An English Premiership winner with Newcastle and an integral part of Northampton’s European Cup winning team against Munster at Twickenham three years later in 2000, Lam had been coaching for virtually 10 years when Connacht appointed him.
“New Zealand people knew of Munster because they’d beaten the All Blacks,’’ he says. “They knew about Leinster and Ulster but there wasn’t too much awareness of Connacht. I did some research work. I knew Eric Elwood from my playing days. You do your homework and you think to yourself: ‘Well, this has got to be the biggest challenge’.
“Eric had already decided to step down as head coach at the end of that season. I asked the board: ‘What’s your vision?’ That’s when they told me that they wanted to be the best team in Ireland in five years.
“That was quite something because they usually finished at the bottom or not far off it. I was very impressed by their ambition. I am a vision person and that attracted me.
“After being sacked by the (Auckland) Blues, I said I would never take another job unless the organisation in question had real ambition. It’s all very well having goals but everything required to reach them has to be in place.
“It can’t just be about the players. I met another couple of clubs before Connacht offered me the job in the January (2013) to start that summer. I arrived in April, just to be a fly on the wall.
“I knew nobody. We beat Zebre in my first game in charge, then lost the next eight. But I wasn’t worried because we were putting systems in place. I knew from the start that the Sportsground in Galway gave us a big advantage because of the fantastic support.
“Opposition teams probably think it’s the worst ground on the circuit. They can’t believe the noise. To us, it’s a magical place. Walking out there on match day it’s almost like an international because the support sounds as though it’s coming from up to 40,000 people.’’
Everyone at Connacht is driven towards attaining the three annual targets set by Lam.
“One: to play in the top European competition so when people are asked about Connacht, they say: ‘They play in the Champions’ Cup.’ Two: to keep improving the pathway from Galway into the national team so that still more of our players play for Ireland.
“Three: to make sure we have a strong representation of indigenous players and ensure it keeps us connected to all our clubs in the west of Ireland.
“Willie Ruane (chief executive), the board and the IRFU have been really positive and supportive. They all know how much it means for Connacht to be playing on the big stage.’’
They will be back on it soon enough but by then Connacht will have to manage one of the penalties of their success as reflected in a rising contingent of Test players.
Two, Finlay Bealham and Ultan Dillane, helped make history when Ireland beat New Zealand in Chicago. Twice as many Connacht players started against Canada the following week – Tiernan O’Halloran, Kieran Marmion, Bealham and Dillane. A fifth, Niyi Adeolokun, won his cap off the bench.
Lam will have to manage without them for the resumption of the Guinness PRO12 this weekend. Cardiff Blues in Galway on Friday and Benetton Treviso there the following week offer the prospect of turning home ground into a winter recovery before a return to Europe.
One of only four teams in a 20-strong field to win both opening matches, Connacht resume in the Champions’ Cup next month, ready to bust a collective gut to ensure they start Round 3 in Coventry where they finished off in Round 2 with that epic home win over Toulouse.
In what promises to be a test like no other, back-to-back ties await against Wasps, an impoverished club rescued from the scrapheap and relocated to Coventry with startling results under the direction of the Irish businessman Derek Richardson.
Sunday lunchtime at the Ricoh Arena on December 11 will mark yet another staging post in Connacht’s journey.
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