The redemption of Pat Lam as a coaching force is turning into one of the feel-good rugby stories of the year.

Now in his fourth season with the Connacht club in the west of Ireland, the former All Black and Samoan international has come a long way from his tearful exit as the Blues coach in 2012.

He has transformed a minnow club into a European force and is the Irish media's tip to replace another New Zealander in Joe Schmidt at the helm of the Ireland's national team should Schmidt return home as expected.

Connacht won their first major trophy in May, taking the Pro12 final - Ireland's equivalent of the NPC - with a 20-10 win over glamour side Leinster in the final.


Asked by Tony Veitch on Newstalk ZB to give the achievement context, the former loose forward described it as being like the Melbourne Rebels winning the Super Rugby title.

"Of the 12 teams that play Pro12, Connacht has the smallest budget, the least resources, the least number of international players," Lam said. "But they had a clear vision. That really got a hold of me ... if they didn't tell me that vision, I would have said, 'thanks, but no thanks'.

"And everything we have achieved has led to us going off to play Champions Cup rugby against the aristocrats of European rugby in Toulouse this weekend - and their budget is 10 times the size of ours.

"When I arrived eighth was their best ever finish. They've always finished traditionally last or second last.

"I love it because everything we do has to be teamwork, on and off-the-field. It's true rugby."

Lam admits he hadn't even heard of the club after exiting the Blues and being approached by Connacht. He knew of Leinster, Ulster and Munster - the latter because of their famous feat of once defeating the All Blacks.

Lam's time at Connacht started poorly. He won his first game in charge after joining the club in 2013 but then Connacht suffered a number of defeats in succession. A win over Newport broke the drought before the team went on a four-match winning streak - the team's longest run of wins in 11 years. A late-season slump led to them finishing 10th in Pro12 but the transformation had begun.

It was best reflected in the Heineken Cup when Connacht caused one of the biggest upsets in European rugby history by defeating Toulouse away in a pool match in December. The result sent shockwaves through the competition and was a reflection of Connacht's growing confidence.

The European Cup was restructured the following season and Connacht ended up in the second tier of the competition. They finished second in their pool and qualified for the quarter-finals where they were beaten by English club Gloucester. Their improvement was most reflected in the Pro12, where the team won a record 10 games and finished seventh - their highest ever finish.

Lam concentrated on developing his players' skills and mindset.

"If you look at Connacht rugby before I came, they've traditionally been a kicking team, grind-out-a-result type of game. Now they talk about us being like the All Blacks up here. It's more about our attitude. When it's on, we go. The biggest thing I took away from the players was fear. We work hard on our skills and, once we developed the individual, we were able to play the style of game I wanted.

"That's why I brought Mils Muliaina over here. He had 10 years in the All Blacks leadership group. Yes, he wasn't at his all-time best when he came over but the impact he made in our leadership group and showing these guys how to lead.

"When I first arrived here, everybody was going, 'Oh Pat, this guy can't do this, and this guy can't do that'. And I said, 'well, can I change any of these boys'. And they said, 'no, that's all you've got'. So I said, 'start telling me what they can do'.

"I've got guys who are so keen to learn and it's fantastic. We've achieved some unbelievable things as a team."

Lam revealed Sir Graham Henry had recently visited him in Ireland and reminded him of how coaches needed to have stickability.

"He reminded me when I was 35 when I got (his first major coaching) a job, he said 'mate, you're going to be a good coach for years to come'. And when he saw some of the stuff we were doing against Leinster, he said, 'mate, pretty impressive. You are a bit of better coach than when you started'," laughed Lam.

When I look back five or 10 years, I've come a long way and I'm excited about what's around the corner."

Lam looks back on his Auckland and Blues coaching stints as critical to his growth, even if he feels his tenure suffered from being judged harshly on his last season at the Blues.

"I look back at my nine years in New Zealand. I won two NPCs and one of them we still hold the record as the only professional team that went through undefeated and won the Ranfurly Shield at the time. Nobody has repeated that.

"And I took the Blues to the semifinals for the first time in a long time. But the only thing I'm remembered for was that last year and, ironically, the last year was the best year."

Asked about potential interest in the national job at Ireland and the 2019 World Cup in Japan, Lam deftly commented: "There's no point in worrying about going to the wedding if you don't have an invitation."

"That's the lesson I've learned over the 15 years I've been coaching. Am I going to be at Connacht for the rest of my life? I don't think so. But I hope to be coaching the rest of my life. Where and when ... who knows?"