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'You remember those days... no one was coming down that channel'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

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Bristol boss Pat Lam has been reminiscing about the incredible 2015/16 title-winning season at Connacht where AJ MacGinty, the new Bears signing, supremely ran the show at out-half in a backline where he had the burgeoning midfield partnership of Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw operating outside him. Aki and Henshaw have gone on to enjoy fantastic achievements since then, helping Ireland to the 2018 Six Nations Grand Slam and touring together with the 2021 Lions in South Africa.   


In the meantime, MacGinty’s own career progress hasn’t been too shabby either. Having originally caught the eye of Lam as a free agent while playing for the USA at the 2015 World Cup, the Dubliner was only able to stay a year at Connacht due to IRFU red tape insisting that non-qualified Ireland players weren’t entitled to contract extensions.

This left MacGinty without a club even though he has just orchestrated the most sublime Connacht performance in their title final win over Leinster in Edinburgh. Lam got on the blower, managed to convince Steve Diamond to take a punt on a player he didn’t know and the rest is Premiership history.

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MacGinty has since gone on to become a trusted part of the furniture at the Sharks and while Lam failed in previous attempts to sign his old Connacht player for Bristol, the stars aligned in recent weeks as the out-half was unveiled as a new Bears signing for the upcoming 2022/23 season, recruitment that resulted in Sale last week announcing they would now be bringing in George Ford as the American international’s replacement.  

Set to turn 32 in February, it’s a big move for MacGinty to reunite with Lam all these years after their amazing triumph with Connacht and the Bristol coach has now recalled those times they had together previously. “The big thing with AJ first and foremost is he was an excellent team person, all about the team,” said Lam when asked by RugbyPass about his relationship with MacGinty from their time in Galway.

“We were very aligned about how we like the game to be played and then by being a good person, a good communicator and a world-class rugby player, which is exactly what you want from your tens, he was able to drive the game where you know the guys will look up to him, respect him. He will fit in nicely with the (Bristol) group. His fundamental skills are excellent too.


“He has obviously got a very good kicking game, being an ex-scrum-half which is why it worked very well for him in Connacht. What he could do was fire passes left and right quickly, but he is also a big defender. You remember those days, it was very difficult for anyone to get past AJ MacGinty, Bundee Aki at 12 and Robbie Henshaw at 13. No one was coming down that channel. Certainly, he will fit in nicely here.”

Lam further remembered the ringing around he did on behalf of MacGinty to get the player a deal elsewhere after the union in Ireland refused to allow the Dubliner to be re-contracted as he was an American international. “When it came to the IRFU and he wasn’t allowed to stay I rang the Premiership clubs because I knew he would be good in the Premiership. 

“I pretty much rang most of the directors of rugby because I knew them and the first guy to take him up was Steve Diamond. Steve hadn’t heard of him but he said, ‘Pat, you really believe in him?’ I said, ‘Steve, honestly, we would keep this guy if we could’. Steve flew him over and 24 hours later signed him. 

“I wasn’t joking with Steve, I tried to get him (back) a few times and Steve wasn’t budging, but the Premiership, playing with a good Sale team, and then having another World Cup, the experience of playing week in week out in the Prem, international rugby, the World Cups, has helped him to develop his game.”


Why have the stars aligned on this occasion, though, for Lam to get MacGinty, the 30-cap Test player, onboard at Bristol “It comes down to timing, is he available?

“Sometimes when he was available we didn’t have an option and sometimes we had an option and he wasn’t available, but everything aligned this time and the big thing is our connection and relationship, but certainly his goals and the Bears goals are aligned as well. He will add real value to us.”


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