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Rugby’s 5000/1 shot: The Genius of Pat Lam

 

While the eyes of the footballing world were firmly focused on the Premier League in 2015/16 as Leicester City secured an unlikely title, another underdog story was unfolding in the PRO14 as Connacht overcame all odds to win the Championship. Stats Perform analyses how the genius of coach Pat Lam helped achieved this feat, and how he has brought a similar blueprint to current club, Bristol Bears. 

By: Jonathan McCormick

The man who masterminded Connacht’s success in 2015/16 was Auckland-born New Zealand coach Pat Lam, who has since moved on to become director of rugby at Bristol Bears in the Premiership, a team with huge ambition, as well as the finances to make those dreams a reality.

The way Lam has got Bristol playing is remarkably similar to the successful brand of rugby he introduced at Connacht. His playing style was at the heart of the Galway side’s title-winning season. Here, as the official data provider of the PRO14, we utilise our unique database to take an in-depth look at the Lam blueprint.

Forward Thinking

During his coaching career in Europe, Lam has opted to build a team of players who are comfortable with their hands on the ball, particularly within his forward pack. There has been a strong similarity between his title-winning Connacht side and his current Bristol outfit in terms of the number of passes made by forwards.

Usually seen as the men who make the hard yards by carrying into contact, Pat Lam has utilised his forwards as effective link men, able to suck in defenders who sense the threat of a big carry before shipping the ball on before contact arrives. With the forwards heavily involved in offensive play, opposition defences get drawn toward the ball carriers in order to prevent Lam’s sides making easy ground, leaving space out wide for the backline to exploit. Key to this is that every player on the pitch needs to be comfortable in possession.

At Connacht, with the eight forwards often occupying a 2-4-2 formation across the pitch, the pod of four in the middle – usually the front rowers along with a second row – would be the men trusted to make the choice between carrying or passing. The choice to pass would have several options attached to it; a ball back inside, a tip-on pass to the man on the outside shoulder, or a ball out the back to a supporting runner would usually all be available in an attempt to manipulate the defensive line.

Pat Lam's Forward Formation

It is no surprise therefore to see that Connacht’s forwards made more passes than the forwards from any other team during their 2015/16 PRO14 campaign. Their total of 917 was 170 more than the next best (Glasgow, 747) and accounted for 22% of their total passes, also a league high.

Individually the top passing forward in the PRO14 in 2015/16 was Aly Muldowny – usually the second row representative in the pod of four in the middle – while three of the top four passing props were Connacht players (Denis Buckley, Finlay Bealham, Rodney Ah You) as well as the hooker to make the most passes across the campaign (Tom McCartney).

PRO14 2015/16 Forwards Passing Statistics

TeamPasses By ForwardsRank% Of Passes By ForwardsRank
Connacht917121.7%1
Glasgow Warriors747221.0%2
Edinburgh559318.8%5
Newport Gwent Dragons537420.2%4
Scarlets532517.9%6
Ulster515614.0%10
Cardiff Blues510716.0%7
Ospreys499814.0%9
Zebre468920.4%3
Leinster4641012.0%11
Munster4581115.2%8
Benetton Treviso3341211.6%12

While Lam’s Bristol side may not necessarily have adapted the same shape in formation as his Connacht outfit, the forwards are still proving to be a big part of how they move the ball.

Just like Connacht did in 2015/16, the Bristol Bears have topped the charts in the Premiership in 2019/20 when it comes to passes made by forwards. Their tally of 546 passes by forwards is already over 150 more than anyone else and accounts for almost a quarter of all their passes, another league high.

Premiership 2019/20 Forwards Passing Statistics

TeamPasses By ForwardsRank% Of Passes By ForwardsRank
Bristol546124.2%1
Worcester378220.1%2
Gloucester328316.8%7
Saracens319418.%4
Northampton315515.8%11
Bath313616.6%8
Harlequins304717.5%5
Sale302819.5%3
Exeter300916.5%9
London Irish2651017.4%6
Leicester2371115.9%10
Wasps2351214.7%12

Again, it is a lock and a selection of front rowers that stand out – Chris Vui making the second-most passes of any forward and the most for a second row, John Afoa and Jake Woolmore have passed more than any other props and only Northampton Saints’ Mike Haywood has passed more than the Bears’ first and second choice hookers, Harry Thacker and Shaun Malton.

Pat Lam’s addition of Kyle Sinckler to Bristol’s squad for next season further emphasises the way he wants his Bristol side to play. The England prop has made the most passes of any tier one tight-five forward in Test rugby since the beginning of 2019, and over twice as many as any other prop in that time. Sinckler’s ability to both carry hard and distribute with great accuracy will only improve on the game plan that Lam has in place at Bristol.

Move It Wide

Connacht and Bristol utilising their forwards’ passing abilities has allowed them to move the ball further and quicker than most teams in their respective leagues. Breaking down their possession metrics we can see that, on average, Connacht moved the ball almost 52 metres away from where their possession originated from, further than any other team in the PRO14.

Connacht also moved the ball quicker than anyone else in 2015/16, on average moving the ball away from where they began possession at a rate of 2.6 metres per second, quicker than any other side in the PRO14. In the process, their vertical progress up the pitch came at a speed of 0.4 metres per second, also the quickest rate.

Lam’s current Bristol side have also shown an ability to move the ball far away from where possession began and with great pace – only Exeter (49.5m) move the ball further in an average possession than Bristol this season, while Northampton (2.6m/s) and Wasps (2.5m/s) are the only sides to move away from where possession began at a quicker pace than the Bears. Strangely, Bristol’s direct speed up the pitch is one of the slowest in the league, but they’ve gained more metres per game (423) than any other side in the Premiership this season suggesting that they’ve prioritised moving defences from side to side before advancing up the pitch at a steady rate.

Off set-piece and kick returns, Lam’s sides have been impressive at applying width. In 2015/16, the maximum distance across the pitch that Connacht moved the ball after their own lineouts was 31.6 metres on average, wider than any other side, while they also moved the ball wider than any other side after fielding a kick from their opposition.

Bristol have posted similar numbers, with only two teams averaging greater width off scrums and lineouts and the Bears move the ball wider than any other side on average after the opposition have kicked the ball to them.

Crucially, the handling ability of Pat Lam’s forwards hasn’t come to the detriment of the set piece – one of the primary jobs for members of the pack. Connacht in 2015/16 maintained the second-best scrum success rate in the PRO14, as well as the third-best rate at the lineout. Coincidentally, Bristol have boasted the second-best scrum and third-best lineout in the Premiership this season too, helping to create a solid platform from which to launch from.

Key Men on the Ball

Connacht under Pat Lam were one of the best sides at getting their key men on the ball. In 2015/16, three of their most important players – Aly Muldowney, Bundee Aki and Tiernan O’Halloran – sat in the top 10 for most attacking touches per 80 minutes of non-half backs, with the Irish side showing a desire to get the ball in the hands of the players who could do most damage to their opposition. It is perhaps no surprise that Lam later signed Aly Muldowney for his Bristol team.

PRO14 2015/16 attacking touches

Similarly, Bristol have been good at getting the ball into the hands of their dangermen. Excluding half-backs, only Ryan Mills – who normally plays at inside centre and would often be the second receiver for his team – has averaged more touches per 80 minutes than Charles Piutau this season, with the Bears getting the ball in the hands of one of their most destructive runners as often as possible. Not far behind Piutau is Nathan Hughes, another big ball carrier for Bristol, who has been instrumental in giving the Bears front-foot ball this season.

Premiership 2019/20 Attacking touches

Getting key men on the ball is an important part of the game plan; if you have a player capable of beating defenders and getting over the gainline consistently it makes sense to use that ability as often as possible. In 2015/16 Bundee Aki made the most carries of any player in the PRO14, making the most carries over the gainline in the process. Aki also beat 88 defenders that season – the most by any player in a PRO14 campaign since detailed analysis began.

Similarly, Charles Piutau has been the main man for Bristol this season. The former All Black has made the most carries in the Premiership in 2019/20, gaining the most metres and beating the most defenders in the process and most importantly providing his Bears side with front foot ball.

Key Players Under Pat Lam

Whether Bristol have the same success under Pat Lam as Connacht did in 2015/16 is yet to be determined, but what is certain is that their expansive brand of rugby will cause plenty of teams headaches over the coming seasons, as well as being easy on the eye for the neutrals.