Connacht head into Saturday’s vital Pro 12 fixture with Munster in a “great space”, according to head coach Pat Lam
Despite their exit from Europe at the hands of Grenoble on Saturday, Lam says Connacht are in a “wonderful position at this stage of the season” with Champions Cup rugby in their control.
“I made it clear to players that all the hard work has put us in a pretty clear situation. Three games, and mathematically if we win one without a bonus point, we are guaranteed top six, done and dusted, which is our main goal from the start of the season. If we win two out of the three, we are guaranteed a semi-final, and if we win three out of three, we are guaranteed a home semi-final.
“We have reviewed the game (Grenoble) and came out with clear answers. So that is a great learning, you couldn’t have asked for a better game to follow up than playing Munster here at home.”
Lam has been forced to add wing Danie Poolman to the injury list after he damaging his foot in the 33-32 defeat in France, but good news is that outhalf Jack Carty has been cleared fit and available after 10 weeks sidelined following surgery to remove his spleen.
"Dave Ellis (skills coach)has put him through progressive contact play in the last couple of weeks, including this week as well. He is available for selection as I speak now.
“We are conscious he hasn’t played for a while. He will go through quite a vigorous training today and test everything out. And I am conscious that I have named the starting team three weeks in a row, and that starting team hasn’t got to the start line.”
Shane O'Leary, who has taken over the outhalf reins in the absence of both Carty and AJ MacGinty, is suffering from bumps, bruises and black eyes, but is "fine", while Rory Parata is also available having recovered from a kneecap injury. MacGinty and fullback Tiernan O'Halloran are continuing rehab with hopes of being available "in the coming weeks", but Jake Heenan is ruled out for three to four weeks with an ankle sprain. Prop Nathan White continues to go through RTP protocols following concussion in Connacht's win over Leinster.
With so much at stake for all sides heading into the final three fixtures, Lam says it is all up for grabs.
“Anyone can beat anyone on the day, everyone has motivation, but if we get caught up in what other people are trying to do, or outcomes, and so forth, then we will be in trouble, so our whole focus is on how do we beat Munster, what are our learnings from the last game, and let’s go about doing that, and don’t get too caught up in all the external distractions.
“We have to remember we are playing two finalists from last year, albeit at home, and then Trevso who are desperate to get in a head of Zebre, so there are no easy games.
“We must ask questions of Munster’s defence and of their attack. That is the way we have played all year. If you have the most experienced team to do that, fantastic, but the reality is the team changes, and I have academy boys out there who are doing a great job, but they are learning on the run. There is no doubt if everyone was available then lot of those guys would be playing in the AIL this week, but they are playing at the top level.”
Lam says it is similar to his playing days when Ronan O’Gara was a youngster.
"When I was at Northampton I saw first hand a young Ronan O'Gara and we put a lot of pressure on him and we won the Heineken Cup. And from the lessons learned, he went on to have fantastic career and win two Heineken Cups after that and become a legend of Irish rugby. That is an example of what these young guys can do. They are getting a taste earlier than expected because of our injuries, and that is exciting as rugby players going forward."