Pat Lam stresses Connacht’s rejuvenation needs to leave legacy

Munster match against Edinburgh at Musgrave Park on Saturday week virtually a play-off for Champions Cup qualification

Connacht’s coach Pat Lam celebrates with skills coach Dave Ellis after the province’s Pro12 victory over Munster at  The Sportsground, Galway. Photograph: Inpho

Connacht’s coach Pat Lam celebrates with skills coach Dave Ellis after the province’s Pro12 victory over Munster at The Sportsground, Galway. Photograph: Inpho

 

GERRY THORNLEY

This truly felt momentous, seismic even. In front of a record, near 8,000 sell-out, Saturday night at the Sportsground witnessed not only Connacht’s first ever double over Munster but confirmation of a shift in the balance of provincial power. By the end Connacht had not only indisputably reclaimed second place in the table and the bragging rights, but their joyous fans had reclaimed the Fields of Athenry too.

It’s been a very long time coming, but they’ve never had it so good and it ain’t finished yet.

The ramifications of Connacht’s 35-14 bonus point win are also more significant than perhaps for any previous result between the two. In addition to reclaiming second place, Pat Leam’s squad copper fastened their primary seasonal goal of direct qualification for next season’s European Champions Cup by dint of a top six place.

Of course, they’ve long since moved on from that in truth, and now travel to Treviso on Friday week knowing a win will ensure qualification for the play-offs for the first time ever. Back that up with a win at home to Glasgow on the final Saturday, three weeks’ hence, and they will secure a home semi-final. This from a province that had never finished higher than seventh before.

“That’s ticked off,” said Lam of the top six finish, adding: “Now we have to get Connacht into the semi-finals. Treviso is a different type of game where we’re expected to win and that brings a different type of mental challenge. Treviso will have their last home game and are still fighting for Champions Cup so we’ve got to prepare well for that. If we win that we’ve a semi-final and off the back of that we come back and play the form team, Glasgow, what a great game to play here to determine if we get a home semi, and what a season!”

Oh how Munster would swap places with them. This defeat, coupled with results over the weekend, left them seventh and outside the top six qualification threshold for next season’s European Champions Cup. They also have Cardiff breathing down their necks. Granted they only trail Edinburgh on points’ difference but even so that makes their game with the Scottish outfit at Musgrave Park on Saturday week virtually a play-off for Champions Cup qualification.

Play-off hopes Now a whopping 15 points behind Connaacht, Munster’s hopes of a play-off spot are now all but goosed, leaving the three-time champions and last season’s runners-up in nothing more than an almighty scrap to avoid next season’s Challenge Cup.

“It’s professional sport,” said Anthony Foley of Munster’s current plight. “We need to get down and dirty and we need to get points. It has been that way for a while, the last number of weeks. Some games have gone our way, some haven’t. We need to focus right back in on ourselves and make sure we get our own jobs done.”

“We need massive turnout in Musgrave Park and for them to get in behind the boys. Their effort is phenomenal. They need all the support they can get.”

With home games against the two teams immediately above them, Edinburgh and the Scarlets, Munster at least remain in control of their own destiny, as the saying goes, although that seemed like scant consolation to Foley, not least as some of the officiating was very much beyond their control as he saw it.

“At 14-6 I thought we were good value for that. The game left us. Some of it was in our control and some of it was not,” said Anthony Foley, who saw his side suffer two yellow cards in succession before half-time and was clearly aggrieved at the first against James Cronin for supposedly scrimmaging at an angle after a collective warning to both front-rows.

“I don’t even think it was his call,” said Foley in reference to referee Ben Whitehouse. “It was a touchy call. It was James. If you look at it, and the camera is good on that side of the pitch, green three (Finaly Bealham) collapses and feeds out. BJ Botha has done it for years, penalised for years for it, and we get a yellow card and a penalty. Go from there.”

But on a night quite like no other, this was very much Connacht’s night.

“I’m really pleased for Connacht people,” said Lam, who singled out his predecessor Eric Elwood, now Connacht’s domestic rugby manager. “Me and him meet every week. He knows what we’re trying to do for the game. I talk to him about feedback. He’s an example, he’s so proud, he’s a reflection of all those who deserve this, what the boys are doing.”

Lam also cited the example of driving his son to school during the week.

“We must have counted 10 to 20 people, of different ages, wearing Connacht gear. He told me when he first started going to PE, there were very few. It was all Leinster and Munster jerseys. He said: ‘mate, everyone wears Connacht jerseys (now)’. That’s a realisation of where we are and where we can go.”

But, maintaining the theme, Lam stressed this rejuvenation needs to leave a legacy, needs to be endured. “There’s no doubt we need a stadium. When you’re turning away people two weeks in a row now and we can easily fill the ground. We need a realistic stadium of 10/12 or 15,000. It’s not just a stadium for Connacht rugby. It’s a stadium for Connacht people.”

“We’re talking about Galway being the cultural capital of Europe in 2016 and you could have concerts there. I vision that. It’s for the whole community. I spoke to businesses this week and I said we need to all help each other. And I said to them that you guys are a reflection of this rugby team. If you’re on your own, it’s wasted. But if you want a vision for Galway and beyond, and for Connacht to become massive, you need to build relationships and network.”

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