(originally published in the Galway Advertiser)
Connacht have a real opportunity to pull off a season-saving performance in Saturday’s crunch Champions Cup play-off against Northampton in England.
Ultimately it may not result in qualification, but a victory would give players and fans one last opportunity at the Sportsground to restore pride. Achieve their seasonal ambitions. Finish the season with a much needed feel-good factor. Say farewell to Pat Lam, Connacht’s most successful coach after a four-year tenure.
Connacht needs it, the fans need it, and most of all, after a poor season in the aftermath of last year’s Pro 12 winning run, the players need it. Yes, the odds are against Pat Lam’s side, but that should be no obstacle. It is time to produce.
Connacht must win to host next weekend’s final play-off game against Cardiff Blues or Stade Francais for the final European Champions Cup spot. First they return to Franklin Gardens some eight years since Northampton came out on top by 42-13 in that year’s European Challenge Cup quarter-final, having 13 years earlier been stunned by Warren Gatland’s side.
Since then the Saints have won the European Cup, the Challenge Cup and the Premiership. Yet similar to Connacht, they have struggled to rise to those heights since beating Saracens 20-24 to win the premiership 2013/14.
On paper they are strong. Boasting numerous internationals, but this season they finished seventh. Losing 12 of their 22 league games. Conceding more points than they scored (490/476 ). Yet, incredibly claiming seven bonus points – only one less than Gloucester.
Connacht, however, will be primed – both mentally and physically. They have had two weeks of soul searching since they tamely relinquished their PRO12 crown when losing to Munster by 50-14. A performance Pat Lam described this week as embarrassing. And the selection of five Connacht players – Kieran Marmion, Tiernan O’Halloran, Finlay Bealham, John Cooney and Dave Heffernan – on Ireland’s summer tour is also a timely boost.
Although still missing key players such as Tom McCartney and Bundee Aki, they have been boosted with Niyi Adeleokun, Matt Healy, and Ultan Dillane, all returning to training. That is countered by Andrew Browne (calf ) and Tom Farrell (groin ), but it is expected Lam will give these two players until the last minute to prove their fitness.
Attitude is key
“There are a lot of things to factor in,” says Lam. “Ultan has been out nearly 10 weeks. Healy has been out 11 weeks. Niyi four or five week. We’ll have to weigh all those things up. We have issues in the backs, but hopefully all going well, they will be in contention.”
What is concerning is Connacht’s inability to reproduce last season’s form on a consistent basis.But Lam says the players’ attitude cannot be underestimated.
“What gives me confidence is the way the boys have responded so far and the quality of the sessions since that [Munster] game. Ultimately it is a massive challenge. Just look at the quality they have, but this is what this sort of rugby is all about. Snd we have a few more days to keep building, and it’s on the day.
80 minute performance
“It’s going to come down to the game. There are 80 minutes to perform. We have a stage and a platform to do it, so it’s over to us to do it. You can see the guys putting the effort in, but ultimately it comes down to nothing if we don’t get it right on Saturday.
“We haven’t enjoyed ourselves for the past two games because we didn’t play to our standards. You want to come out being able to look at your teammates. You want respect of your teammates. The people outside are secondary to teammates. If we go out and get the attitude right, and we will come off that field feeling a lot more enjoyment that we have for the last few games.
“It’s not just the players, it’s all of us and me particularly. To get a 50-point against you, something is particularly wrong. So I spent more time than usual looking hard, and I just showed the players and asked the questions, and already I am seeing a response.
“You couldn’t get a better game than this where we need to answer those questions. Because if we don’t, our season will end this weekend.
“No doubt there are things we will do slightly different that we have up our armoury. But it means nothing if we don’t get the attitude right and the questions we all have been asked of ourselves, on the basis that we represent Connacht, on the basis that we have set some pretty high standards for ourselves. If we don’t get all of that right, it doesn’t matter.”
Pat Lam may well be remembered in Northampton as the captain who helped achieve league, cup and European glory at Franklin Gardens. In Connacht he will be remembered for a Pro 12 championship crown. And hopefully European qualification for a second successive season as well.