Gregor Paul 's Opinion

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Forwards-thinking coach may hold on to Lam

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John Kirwan. Photo / Getty Images
John Kirwan. Photo / Getty Images

Leniency, patience and forgiveness have been key themes of the New Zealand Rugby Union's handling of Super Rugby coaches, making it anomalous should the career of Pat Lam come to an abrupt halt in August.

Graham Henry survived a disastrous World Cup campaign in 2007; Ian Foster meandered through several years of underachievement at the Chiefs to claim an All Black post; Mark Hammett was backed to the hilt last year when he sacked his captain and a shortlisted IRB Player of the Year in his rookie season; Colin Cooper was afforded a long stint at the Hurricanes despite mixed and largely underwhelming results.

Lam isn't going to survive in his current role - the question is whether he can still be of value to the Blues and does the NZRU owe him the same kind of support and loyalty extended to several other Super Rugby coaches of the immediate past?

After all, Lam was offered a contract extension before the season began, confirming he was held in some regard.

To be cast totally adrift now, written off after albeit the worst season in the Blues' history, throws into doubt how robust the decision-making was to offer him another year.

Lam would have a just grievance if the safety net isn't placed underneath him.

Would it be right for his peers to enjoy a soft landing while he goes splat?

This is a decision the NZRU and Blues have to get right and it's more complex than saying: 'Lam's been hopeless, turf him out'.

The likely challengers for the head coaching role include John Kirwan, former Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan and former Waikato, Wasps and Sale head Tony Hanks.

Bigger fish may yet surface, but Nick Mallett has said he's happy in South Africa for now, implying he didn't see the job as big enough to uproot his family again, Joe Schmidt is committed to Leinster for another year and Vern Cotter is staying with Clermont.

Looking at the possible shortlist, Kirwan is tough to gain a handle on as a coach. His two major roles have been with Italy and Japan, teams notoriously difficult to judge on results alone. The bigger issue is the fact he's been out of New Zealand for so long.

He no doubt stays in touch and follows what's going on, but that's not the same as having in-depth knowledge of the players and the overall landscape of the game here. O'Sullivan's record is equally patchy when it comes to results - his golden period with Ireland ended disastrously when they were confined to a pool round exit at the 2007 World Cup and the US, where he ended up next, never kicked on the way they had been threatening under O'Sullivan's predecessor, Peter Thorburn.

Like Kirwan, O'Sullivan would have little or no local knowledge.

Hanks, at least, has worked in New Zealand in the last five years but his overall experience is limited and he was let go by Wasps after 18 months and lasted only half that long at Sale, being pushed in the middle of this Northern Hemisphere season.

There is a valid argument that, if any of these three lands the top role, they would benefit from Lam's involvement in the wider coaching group.

His knowledge of the local scene could be of considerable value and despite results and performances to date, there have been flickering signs that the forwards have some idea what they are doing.

It's always hard to pick the good when a team offers so much bad but the Blues have been adept at holding up the opposition ball carrier in the tackle and that was a major factor why the Highlanders couldn't recycle quickly.

Freed from the pressure and tension of being head coach, Lam could carve a niche for himself as a technically sound forwards coach.

However, the new head coach may not want a bar of Lam. He may feel it would be best to cut all ties with the previous regime and argue that Lam has been tainted beyond redemption by the scale of collapse this season.

How will the NZRU feel about that? Will they push to have Lam involved? Make it a condition of the job even or conclude that a head coach has to be free to build his team as he wants?

If the NZRU back off, they will need to be sure they are being fair and consistent; that they haven't abandoned Lam on the back of one campaign while recidivist offenders have been given multiple opportunities to get things right.

- Herald on Sunday

Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer. He has written several books on rugby including the Reign of King Henry, Black Obsession and For the Love of the Game.

Read more by Gregor Paul

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