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The 'smallest budget' reminder Pat Lam has on Bristol office wall

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by PA)

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Don’t talk to Bristol boss Pat Lam about the alleged hardships of Gallagher Premiership clubs with reduced budgets struggling to thrive, especially in the Heineken Champions Cup. A debate across the recent pool stages was that the salary cap in England, which has come down from £6.4million to £5m, would affect the competitiveness of the Premiership. 

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In the end, five of the English participants in the 24-team Champions Cup made it through to the round-of-16 stage, but Northampton, Bath and Wasps were the three teams to struggle and fail to qualify.  

When the cap was at its highest level, England dominated the honours list with Saracens winning three titles and Exeter one in five seasons. However, a force of old struck back last term as Toulouse secured a record fifth title in an all-French final and with seven French clubs and four Irish now through to this year’s knockout stage, it will be tough for an English club to go on and become champions.  

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Lam, though, has no time for excuses that allege that a reduced budget hinders a team’s competitiveness. Bristol argued against the Premiership salary cap reduction, their perspective being that the financially worried English clubs who voted for the cut should have been living within their means in the first place.   

The reduction, however, hasn’t dimmed Lam’s ambition and no sooner was the topic of budget mentioned at his weekly media briefing, the coach tilted his laptop screen away from his face to instead show the framed piece of memorabilia taking pride of place on his office wall  – a jersey, some pictures and a medal celebrating the 2016 PRO12 title win by Irish minnows Connacht, the team Lam coached before taking over at Bristol the following year.

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“It’s a reminder that Connacht at that time had the smallest budget of all the teams in the northern hemisphere but if you get everyone working together it is not impossible,” explained Lam with a smile reflective of the fondness he still holds for his incredibly successful spell in Ireland after his time at the Super Rugby Blues in Auckland was ended prematurely. 

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“It’s difficult but you can get it done. You will always have a team that has got more money, you are always going to have a team that has got more resources, but it is the emphasis on the vision, emphasis on clarity of role, on game culture leadership. With everyone working together, you can still achieve. 

“Sure, it makes it difficult that the Premiership teams are going up against the French teams who have huge money. Same with some of the teams in the URC (the latest name for the old PRO12). But it is about a fighter or a victim mindset, it’s about understanding that and just worrying about what we can do and we can achieve a lot. 

“That is a question every year but I still believe it [Premiership clubs in Europe] can be competitive. Not everything is on an even playing field but that is my life in sport and all the teams I have been to, you always have got someone who has got more. You don’t worry about that, you just worry about making sure you are the best version of yourself so you can compete.” 

Jogging his memory back to his four-year stay in Ireland, Lam added about Connacht’s budget: “We were miles behind the other three provinces and that was fine and that is what I was saying about the Premiership, that is why we [Bristol] didn’t agree with lowering the salary cap. 

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“If the salary cap is at £7m or £6.4m and you have only got £5m, well only spend £5m. That is the responsibility of the DoRs, the CEOs, the boards to make sure they don’t send their club into bankruptcy. In Ireland, Leinster had so much money, Ulster and Munster had so much more money. 

“We [Connacht] had this amount of money and it was not a problem that this was what we got. We could have spent possibly up what Leinster had but we didn’t have that money, so you just spend within your means and you focus on what you can be as a quality rugby team. 

“The whole system in Ireland, unless you are over there you won’t really understand it. Even in Connacht. The schools system, directors of rugby in some of these schools get paid a lot more than some of the provincial coaches, so they have got some quality setups in these schools in Dublin which means that a lot of the players in Leinster get well-coached.

“Great resources. They are getting developed real fast and the spin-off is they all come through and they are in the Leinster catchment, which is great and you have seen it. It is just a conveyor belt of players coming through and even when we were at Connacht, because they can’t take all of them, we picked up a few. They have got a great setup there in Leinster and ultimately in Ireland.” 

Back to the office wall in Bristol: what else has Lam got hanging on it? “There are a few other bits and pieces, some from my playing days and stuff, but the Connacht one is there to remind me and everybody that it is not about the resources. It’s about getting everybody on the same page and reminding people that money is not everything. It’s about key things and getting them right.” 

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