That Connacht will be targeted in a way they’ve never experienced before will become manifest from the moment they kick off their defence of the Guinness Pro12 against their predecessors as champions, the Glasgow Warriors, at the Sportsground on Saturday.
In addition to dealing with this and existing in their own more rarefied air as champions – at a stroke no more the underdogs – they have also been hit with an early-season injury toll, notably in the second-row, and will have the additional demands of a European Champions Cup campaign.
Second season syndrome is a phenomenon which can afflict newly crowned champions – witness Leicester City – albeit Connacht have shown an ability to withstand all manner of outside distractions on their memorable run-in to the Pro12 title last season.
Tried and tested
It was then that they fell back on their tried and tested culture and processes, and so it will be again this season, regardless of how their bar has now been raised like never before.
"Expectation is out there all the time," Pat Lam acknowledges. "We know how tough it is to win this, and the reality is that for years [until last season] we had never finished above seventh. But I think they're all outcomes, and our most important thing is that we don't focus on that expectation. If we do that we'll be in trouble. Our whole thing is the way we do our training day and then how we perform.
“I think you might have seen on the posters outside, ‘True success’. I don’t value my performance on what people say about me. I appreciate some nice things but it doesn’t bother me if it’s really negative. True success is looking in the mirror and being able to say, ‘I did really well today.’ We put a big emphasis on not worrying about what other people say, and more about what we think we did.”
To that end, Connacht’s approach from season to season is no different from game to game, according to Lam. “Our game has certainly evolved from when I first walked into the Sportsground to where we are now, and it evolved week to week, game to game and season to season. On the back of what we achieved I won’t change the process of how we look at it. This week for us is making sure we have options, because you can’t defend everything. So you’ve got to make sure you’ve a structure in attack that teams can’t defend.”
“I think the most important part of our game was around teamwork. It’s around clarity of role, the quality of our breakdown work, and the quality of the work we did that didn’t require talent, but more a really tough attitude and team spirit, and if we lose that we’ll be in trouble. That’s what Connacht rugby and our culture is all about. It can look pretty, but if you don’t have the attitude we’d struggle.”
‘Well up for it’
And then there’s Glasgow this Saturday. “We know they’ll be well up for it and we know the importance of starting the season well,” says Lam. “It’s close to a sell-out, Sky TV will be here and
will again be the referee. We’re expecting a really fired-up Glasgow team, which is a great way to start the season.”
In addition to pre-season injuries for Quinn Roux (hip) and Andrew Browne (thigh), both of whom will be out for two or three weeks, Ben Marshall is continuing his recovery from a head injury arising from concussion sustained last season (as is prop Nathan White).
On foot of the departure of Aly Muldowney, the only three second-rows still standing are Ultan Dillane, Lewis Stevenson and Danny Qualter, and Dillane's game time has to be managed in advance of the November internationals.