Nothing to lose for Connacht as Pat Lam looks for a repeat performance against Toulouse
Win in France has created a real opportunity for Connacht this Saturday
Connacht head coach Pat acknowledges that it will be another big step up for his team on Saturday. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Connacht needed that. The organisation needed it. Pat Lam needed it, and the players needed it. Now, the West is vibrantly awake again, with Saturday’s expanded and expectant 9,000 capacity barely set to satisfy demand at the Sportsground, but for last Sunday’s epic Heineken Cup win over Toulouse not to be another Irish one-off, the trick will to repeat it against the same vengeful opponents.
To this end, the build-up to Saturday’s reprise has accentuated how much last Sunday’s win created an opportunity to maintain their qualification hopes. Sitting one point behind Saracens and Toulouse, a victory would propel Connacht above the French outfit and, with Zebre to come at home, leave them very much in contention for the knockout stages.
“Every team that goes into a competition, their ultimate aim is to win it,” said Lam after training yesterday afternoon in the Sportsground. “That’s why you’re there. But that’s an outcome. For us it’s a process. We’re not talking about quarter-finals. We’re into the fourth game of this competition and everything is geared toward making sure we get this performance right.”
Nevertheless, a la Ireland against the All Blacks, embarrassment over previous results mixed with fear, were assuredly contributory factors to last Sunday’s ultra focussed performance, which are harder feelings to reproduce against opponents you’ve just beaten.
“It’s not too tough really,” said Lam of the mental challenge Connacht face this week. “The belief from last week, which has been based on the work that the boys have done off the field right through the season, and the culture we have been trying to achieve, gives us a big boost. We know it’s another step up this week and I think everyone is more excited by it, but we know it’s not just going to happen.”
Lam hailed the two minute defensive end-game in the middle of the pitch as “probably the best defensive effort I’ve ever been involved in, playing and coaching.”
Almost inevitably though, given their injury woes, Connacht did not emerge without any scars, and of all people their normally impregnable warrior Michael Swift suffered a fractured cheekbone. “He will be out for four weeks, which is a big loss for us,” admitted Lam.
Offsetting that, Ally Muldowney is fit again, as is winger Tiernan O’Halloran.
While Guy Noves will assuredly welcome back the rested Maxime Medard, Gael Fickou, Yannick Nyanga and Joe Tekori, Lam is not likely to make many changes, but all of the replacements contributed strongly in the Stade Ernest Wallon, and certainly Eoin McKeon must be pushing hard for selection after making a phenomenal 14 tackles in his 33 minutes on the pitch.
Lam made reference to Toulouse being a wounded and dangerous animal in the aftermath of last Sunday’s win, and the days since haven’t dimmed that view. “Just another level. A pretty angry team of seasoned internationals. We lost Michael Swift. That’s a big legend for us. They can replace internationals with internationals. But no doubt their whole week will be pretty fired up and pretty focussed. So we know the challenge has gone up, but that’s the challenge for us, to take it to another level as well in our preparation.”
Were last Sunday’s performance repeated every week, admittedly a tall ask, Connacht would be near the top of the Rabo Pro12, which begs the question as to what they’re doing at the bottom.
“The three areas that have been killing us have been turnovers, giving away penalties and our goal-kicking, and we made big improvements in all those three areas at the weekend.”
Indeed, Dan Parks landed three from four, including one critical touchline conversion, as well as a drop goal, to maintain an 80 percent-plus kicking ratio in the Cup, as against 55 percent in the league.
“But the important thing is that the belief in the team hasn’t wavered,” added Lam, “and that comes back to the culture, and everybody driving where we’re trying to go. But we need to take this into this week and then back into the Rabo.”
Rock solid set piece
Lam again paid due tribute to the work and attention to detail of forwards’ coach Dan McFarland, and with another rock solid set-piece platform, Connacht played with plenty of width and ambition. Allowing for an unhelpful long-range forecast, more likely to suit the heavier if less mobile Toulouse pack, similar ambition will be required again.
“The ambition is the vision of the way the guys want to play, and ambition is about making good decisions on what’s available. We even identified a few chances at the weekend that we did blow . . .”
Temporary terracing behind the goals have increased the capacity to near the record 9,120 which attended the Toulouse game two seasons ago, with the additional 1,500 tickets liable to be snapped up early today.
“When I first saw The West’s Awake,” said Lam in reference to the acclaimed documentary, “what encapsulated everything was watching the crowd and the noise. It doesn’t matter what size, you could easily be in the Millennium Stadium or the Aviva Stadium, and it gives the boys a lift. That’s been touched on by the boys this week.”
“We represent five counties. We’ve got guys from different backgrounds and there’s some proud people out there . . . It’s been tremendous and we’re glad we were able to do that, but it would be great this week to bring that noise again.
“We know that our performance can really lift everybody, and vice versa. So if we squeeze as many as we can in there, it will be fantastic.”