Former Blues coach Pat Lam speaks to Liam Napier about his journey from coaching discard to one of the world's most sought-after mentors.

To understand where Pat Lam sits, and the values he now holds dear, first appreciate his ugly exit from the Blues.

Just as the brightest light pierces darkness, without the experience of being sacked in 2012 Lam would not be the highly-regarded coach he is today.

Lam began his professional coaching career 17 years ago as a 35-year-old with Auckland. As a young mentor he felt bulletproof. On reflection, he cringes at some of the things he used to do.

Still, two provincial titles convinced the Blues he was the right man for the job in 2009, without so much as an interview.


Only much later in his four-year tenure did Lam realise what a mistake this was.

There were no questions from either side about big picture vision or aspirations and, as it transpired, no real alignment at all.

"When I started I realised there's a lot of things that you don't have control of which affects performance," Lam says. "If I had my time again, there's certainly a lot of things I would have changed."

Among the dark moments, good times came too; 2011 remains the last occasion the Blues reached the Super Rugby playoffs while Steven Luatua and Charles Piutau, among others, progressed through the ranks.

Lam's 45 per cent win record (26 from 58 games) also, somewhat remarkably, compares favourably to successors Sir John Kirwan (35 per cent) and Tana Umaga (41 per cent).

But Lam's final season, in which the Blues won four of 16 games, was brutal. The squeeze came on resources, including the reduction of assistant coaches, and outside influences grew.

Lam struck a lonely figure.

"You quickly learn there's things you can't control as an organisation and the direction it is heading. The breakdown there was massive."

Other than results-driven pressure, Lam fronted circulating racist remarks which centred on the ethnicity of his squad containing 22 Māori and Pacific Islanders.

He shed tears discussing the toll this took on his Samoan parents.

"I got made out that I'm weak and so forth. They got me at a moment there. It was blown up… the thing in life is you're never going to please everyone with your views."

Searching for answers, Blues management advertised Lam's job well before the end of that 2012 season.

Senior All Blacks Keven Mealamu and Jerome Kaino asked Lam to reapply for his job, and with that backing, he opted to fight for his role.

"It was probably my best interview and I remember at the time Gary Whetton saying 'you've made this difficult for us'."

Not difficult enough, though.

Following a 30-16 final-round win in Canberra, Lam heard of Kirwan's appointment through post-match condolences from the Brumbies manager.

"That's how I found out, and that was disappointing."

Blues coach Pat Lam addresses media over the announcement that the Blues will advertise the head coaching role in 2013. Photo / Dean Purcell.
Blues coach Pat Lam addresses media over the announcement that the Blues will advertise the head coaching role in 2013. Photo / Dean Purcell.

Lam did not hold back expressing frustrations to former New Zealand Rugby head of high performance Don Tricker and then Blues chief executive Andy Dalton, recalling: "If that's the way the organisation is going to be I'm glad I'm not there. They said 'it's not' then three days later it was.

"I knew then and there this isn't the place for me. I knew I was a good coach and I would be a better coach from it.

"It was probably the biggest learning I got. If I look at what got me the fastest growth it was my time at the Blues."

Born-and-bred in Auckland, Lam remains passionate about the Blues. These days their jersey represents his fantasy rugby team.

He notes Auckland's transformation this season under Alama Ieremia, and feels the coaching additions of Leon MacDonald and Tom Coventry will prompt improvement.

But, clearly, major concerns linger after the troubled franchise won four of 16 games (the same record as Lam's final at the helm six years ago) to finish second last overall this year.

"A lot of money and resource has been plugged in since I've left. There's a great training facility I've heard about. I had a lot of staff that stayed on after I left and a lot of stuff I asked for… it's all there now.

"I see all the resources and the fact they're still struggling highlights something seriously wrong. My suspicions are some of the things I saw are still probably there.

"It's sad. Where it was to where it is now, I'm just as hungry as other Blues supporters for that place to be more successful.

"But when you get to where it is… I hope it turns around soon."

Scars heal. From the ashes of his axing, Lam vowed never again to be at odds with management.

He devised a new philosophy based around clarity of vision, leadership and culture - three pillars which help the All Blacks sustain their unrivalled legacy.

By 2013, Lam found alignment with Connacht. And so off he went to rebuild his reputation by taking charge of Ireland's traditional underdog battlers.

Connacht, of course, are nothing like the All Blacks. With the smallest budget in Europe, they are very much poor cousins to neighbouring rivals Leinster, Munster, Ulster.

Lam worked tirelessly to understand the area; to unify Connacht's five counties through connecting with their communities.

Knowing he could not afford rock stars, he set about implementing a true team game, one where everybody needed to catch, pass and equally share the workload.

Four years later, Connacht were Pro12 champions after defeating Leinster in the final to secure their first major trophy for 112 years. Promoting 13 internationals typifies their development.

Pat Lam announces his departure from the Blues after the news that former All Black Sir John Kirwan would be taking over the coaching duties. Photo / Greg Bowker.
Pat Lam announces his departure from the Blues after the news that former All Black Sir John Kirwan would be taking over the coaching duties. Photo / Greg Bowker.

"It all came together. It was a huge highlight. It reminded me of Samoa; of St Peter's College and Marist rugby club. You're away from home but as soon as you go into the west of Ireland you are home."

Offers flooded in following Connacht's breakthrough success. But with player salaries rising rapidly and recruitment proving difficult, Lam realised momentum could not be sustained.

Rebuffing approaches from established, prestigious English clubs, Lam settled on Bristol. The second division club represented a similar challenge to Connacht but, more importantly, shared his same vision.

Bristol owner Stephen Lansdown - valued by Forbes at US$2.6 billion (NZD$3.9b) - gave Lam the security and freedom to lure Piutau and Luatua, both on mega deals, though he has built a 75 per cent English qualified squad.

Securing promotion from the Championship last season, Bristol opened this Premiership campaign by welcoming 26,000 for their opening win over Todd Blackadder's Bath – breaking the attendance record at Ashton Gate by some 5,000.

Lam recruited 21 new players this season and, once again, is slowly pulling a united squad together. Bristol are 2/6 in the Premiership and 1/1 in the Europe's second-tier Challenge Cup.

Just as he did in Galway, Lam immediately lifted expectations and standards at Bristol. Rather than fight for mere survival, sights have been set on a top six finish.

"Every year we want to be in the Champions Cup. It doesn't mean you're going to get there, but it certainly increases the chances."

The former schoolteacher is as passionate as ever about his craft. He lives for sharing knowledge; helping others achieve goals.

A student of coaching, his study at the Blues will always hold most value. Representing a time he was chewed up and spat out, Lam emerged with a degree in what not to do. He has since remained true to those lessons.

Contracted to Bristol on a reported annual salary of €750,000 (NZD$1.3m) until May next year, whatever his next step Lam is sure to be in demand.

That alone illustrates how far he has come.

"If I'm getting paid to coach for the rest of my working career I'm a happy man. I'd go to where I have real belief in and real clarity. I'd go to a place where I believe I can make a difference.

"If an international team says they just want to make up the numbers, that's not something I'm keen to do. It's got to fit with my own coaching philosophy. If it's all aligned then you've got a better chance of making it work.

"But you make sure you enjoy every moment of it because things can change real fast."