The success of Connacht Rugby this season puts head coach Pat Lam in the running to replace Joe Schmidt for Irish rugby’s top job.
Ireland are approaching a crossroads. Following the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Ireland went into a serious rebuilding phase. Injuries ravaged the squad both during and after the tournament, with the most notable of all being captain Paul O’Connell’s hamstring injury.
With O’Connell’s retirement from the international game and subsequent retirement from club rugby due to his injury, Ireland have been scrambling to find their feet.
The 2016 Six Nations saw Ireland finish third in the table after a draw, two narrow losses and then finally two rousing victories.
With the long-term build up towards the 2019 Rugby World Cup already underway and with the likes of Iain Henderson and Cian Healy returning from injury and new caps CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, Ultan Dillan and Stuart McCloskey all making an impact during the Six Nations, things appear to be pretty positive for the immediate future.
The only real question concerns head coach Joe Schmidt.
Undoubtedly Ireland’s best and most successful coach, Schmidt is recognised as one of the world’s finest. Previously head coach of Leinster, where he delivered four trophies in six years, including two Heineken Cups, Schmidt has led Ireland to back-to-back Six Nations titles between 2014 and 2015.
However, with a rebuild taking place on the field and questions over Schmidt’s long-term plans beyond his current IRFU contract, eyes inevitably fall on who might succeed Schmidt as head coach of Ireland.
Right now there is a serious case for keeping that appointment within Irish shores and more specifically with Connacht’s head coach Pat Lam.
Following Lam’s appointment in 2013 after long-term Connacht servant Eric Elwood stepped down, Connacht have been on an upward trajectory. Currently sitting top of the Guinness Pro 12 table and coming off the back of a spirited victory over Leinster on March 26th, Lam has continued the good work of Elwood and transformed a side seen as second tier in Ireland to genuine contenders for the title.
This is the kind of leadership that has tongues wagging and eyes watching. Schmidt’s efforts at Leinster saw him headhunted for the Ireland role and such is Lam’s success, it would be no surprise if he was in the running now to succeed Schmidt in 2017.
Having signed a contract extension with Connacht in early 2015, which will see him remain in Galway until the summer of 2018, this gap is pretty much the only sticking point that would prevent a seamless transition for Lam to succeed Schmidt.
Make no mistake however, the IRFU would do very well to explore the option of prising Lam away from Connacht a year early. His southern hemisphere mindset has seen Connacht transform into a side that is aggressive, competent and unflappable under pressure.
They execute a clear game plan regardless of their opponent’s own plans. They have become a real force and are rightly contenders for the title. Such is their transformation that even the likes of Ulster, Leinster and Munster can’t compete with the ‘second tier’ club.
Lam is obviously becoming a serious coaching force and will likely be on the radar of the big clubs throughout Europe. If Lam continues to deliver for Connacht, the province will be eager to keep the Kiwi in Galway past his current contract, however with success comes opportunity and the IRFU will surely be approaching Lam about succeeding Schmidt.
Connacht fans will be horrified by the notion of Lam leaving, but right now Ireland supporters will see this as an exciting prospect, especially with the World Cup just about on the horizon.
Gary Brennan, Pundit Arena
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