Home European semi-final an enticing prize for Pat Lam and Connacht
Coach likely to recall Marmion, Heenan and Dillane for the Grenoble assignment
John Muldoon: “If we finish the season on May 7th, it will be a disappointment,” said the Connacht captain. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Paupers can’t be choosers and, given Connacht’s historically slim pickings, the western province will seek to put their best foot forward in their European Challenge Cup quarter-final away to Grenoble on Saturday night. Two games from a final, three games from winning their first trophy, their circumstances demand nothing less.
For the first time since the 1997-98 season, European quarter-final week finds Connacht as the only Irish show in town, given the Champions Cup pool exits of their three provincial rivals f.
Connacht have to all intents and purposes achieved their primary goal this season of a top six finish and with it direct qualification for next season’s Champions Cup. They have an 11 -point buffer over seventh-placed Edinburgh with three league rounds remaining.
“If we finish the season on May 7th, it will be a disappointment,” stated the Connacht captain in relation to the 22nd and last round of regular season Pro12 games. “I spoke in the dressing room after the Leinster game, and said: ‘it’s nice to be here, have the win and it’s nice to be celebrating, but if we finish on May 7th, what’s it all been for?’ Yes, we want to push on and be there at the business end of things.”
Lam agrees with his captain. “Without a doubt, and that’s what I said before the Leinster game, we’ve six games, and the way we perform in these six determines two semis and two finals. We back ourselves and if we don’t perform in these six, and miss out on those bonus games, as a team we’ll be disappointed.”
“If we get our main goal to get Connacht there (the Champions Cup) then we’re there, but ultimately for these guys, because it won’t be the same squad every year, this is our chance, and particularly for guys at the back end of their careers, this is a genuine chance.”
“We’ve put ourselves in the position where we all know, this time last year and all the other years, we weren’t here. It wasn’t even an issue. We weren’t even in this position.”
This Saturday’s clash offers the carrot of a home semi-final in three weeks time against either Harlequins or London Irish, and Lam, who made eight changes last week, is likely to adhere to his stated intention of rotating his squad for this demanding run-in.
Scrumhalf Kieron Marmion and flanker Jake Heenan have recovered from minor knocks to resume full training this week, and look likely to be recalled, along with the likes of Ultan Dillane, who must be straining at the leash. In the absence of three injured outhalves, the well-travelled 23-year-old Shane O’Leary, born in Cork, reared in Clare and once of the Canadian Under-20s, and who also spent a season at Grenoble, looks likely to be retained after last week’s full senior debut in Belfast.
“I’ll go through it and look at it and the whole selection comes down to the way we want to play and then it comes down to getting the balance. Last week we saw some guys looking a bit tired, and then there’s the injury situation around the outhalf. Some things are forced, some things you work through. But ultimately, you have to do the job and get the win.”
With Bernard Jackman and Mike Prendergast at the helm, Grenoble will be wiser to Connacht than many other French teams might have been, and will thus provide a different running threat. This is Grenoble’s best chance of silverware this season as well. They are also in good form.
“They won the last three games and they put themselves in a really good position because they were sitting around that middle to bottom and these wins have propelled them closer to the top six,” said Lam.
“They know this is also their opportunity, particularly from where they are compared to where we are, of getting Champions Cup. Because the winner of this trophy gets automatic entry . . .”
Lam was encouraged by the team’s defensive performance in the 18-10 defeat to Ulster.
“One of the areas we put a lot of work into, and we were just inconsistent with was our defence. And the last two games since we have been back we have had it over the 90 per cent mark around our tackle quality . . . We have got an idea about how we can beat them. We have an idea about what they do . . . It is going to be a fast game. And if we focus on that then we will get the semi-final. If we just hope to get to the semi-final then we will be in trouble.”