Connacht relish the weekly challenge
Coach Pat Lam is optimistic about Connacht facing better resourced teams in Europe
Connacht’s head coach Pat Lam. Photograph: Dan Sheridan.
Pat Lam is a hard man to put down. Connacht’s coach has infectious enthusiasm and through some of those slanting winter months in Galway that characteristic may just be as vital an ingredient as second phase or the straight put-in.
Lam knew before he arrived to Ireland that Connacht’s lot was going to be a different kind of weekly challenge to that of the other three provinces. Leinster angst is whether they can lay down another winning streak or keep in touch with the top using their shadow side, Ulster’s to keep Ravenhill fortified and siege proof, get out of their Heineken Cup pool.
But Connacht delves into a different type of psychology each week and this Saturday Lam travels away to the team that recently beat Munster, Benetton Treviso, in Stadio Monigo. Then they are at home to English aristocrats Saracens and after that perhaps some respite in Round 2 with an away trip to face the team they have already beaten 25-16 in the first league match of the season Zebre.
Connacht don’t prepare for defeat each week. But they prepare to face teams that are often tipped to beat them whether that is in the league or European Cup.
Performance on pitch
“It’s a challenge, yeah,” says Lam. “I knew that before I arrived over to Galway. But it’s about getting a performance on the pitch and building the team so that we are in a position to face teams.”
Lam’s optimism is strikingly similar to that of Ulster South African Johann Muller. Perhaps it’s a Southern Hemisphere thing. “Any team can beat any other team on any given day. I believe that,” said Muller. “That’s what makes this competition in the league and the Heineken Cup interesting.”
That buoyancy must backbone Lam’s mindset and it’s something he is trying to percolate into the psyche of his players. One of his array of captains Michael Swift fearlessly follows. The spectre of Saracens or Treviso away and even the promise of the English and French clubs and their desire to make Heineken Cup qualification more onerous is a threat to be addressed.
“If qualification changes to a merit-based system we won’t have any problem with that next year,” says the secondrow. “In the past we’ve looked forward to big European teams coming to Galway. We may not have enjoyed the result against Toulouse but it was a great occasion for Connacht rugby
“If things change and we don’t know yet what is going to happen, we won’t be afraid of the challenge as a team,” he adds. “And Saracens have never been to Galway.”
Swift was one of the Connacht players who had to withdraw early from last week’s game against Ospreys, winger Matt Healy and outhalf Craig Ronaldson the other two.
Flanker Jake Heenan, who made his debut for the province last weekend and was temporarily replaced because of a blood injury to his cheek, received stitches. The 21-year-old is likely to be available again this week. Bad news is that Willie Faloon will undergo surgery to his foot this week. The 27-year-old will be out of action for six months.
“For years we played in the Amlin Challenge,” says Swift. “This is now our third season in the Heineken Cup. These are exciting times for Connacht. That first time we played Toulouse it didn’t go our way but we did get a glimpse of what the cup was about.”