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Connacht plotting to save season by bringing play-off final to Galway

The western province need to beat Northampton away this weekend to do so.

THERE WAS A different vibe around the Sportsground on media day this week compared to the same week last season.

The press conference this week was attended mainly by the regulars who are there week-in, week-out, whereas the same week last season brought camera crews and journalists from many national media organisations.

Of course, there is a key difference between the two weeks in question.

John Muldoon

Last season, Connacht were preparing for a home semi-final in a fairytale campaign that would end with a Guinness Pro12 title, their first-ever trophy.

This season, Pat Lam’s men have been warming up for a Champions Cup qualification play-off semi-final against Northampton, eager to ensure they will be at the top table of Europe again in 2017/18.

It’s on a different scale, with Leinster and Munster understandably getting more of the focus this week, but there is a crucial prize on the line for Connacht in the coming weeks.

If they can beat the Saints at Franklin’s Gardens on Saturday, the westerners will be rewarded with a home play-off final against the winner of the other qualification tie between Stade Français and Cardiff Blues.

“It’s slightly different as opposed to last year where you are building to win a title, to win the Pro12,” says openside flanker Jake Heenan when asked to contrast the feeling this time around.

“It’s building to next year now, so our excitement is coming from another opportunity to play against the Toulouses, the Toulons, the Clermonts, those really big clubs.

“At the end of the day, we talked about going out playing in Franklin’s Gardens – this is why we all play rugby. We all play so we can play in front of big crowds, against international players, against Lions, the best opposition on the biggest days.

“That’s what this weekend is and that’s what we all want more of. This is our big opportunity now, to nail this so that we can get those big teams. Not only play against them, but bring them to Galway and get that buzz about here again.”

The Connacht team huddle

Connacht have been in the qualification play-offs before, when they agonisingly lost to Gloucester in an absolute thriller two years ago.

Their run of form into this Saints tie has been far from ideal, with a home defeat to the Scarlets followed by a hammering from Munster at Thomond Park as they ended the Pro12 campaign in eighth spot.

Head coach Lam was disappointed with the attitude shown in that embarrassment at the hands of an excellent Munster team, and says that element is more important than anything this weekend.

Any signs of players having checked out for the summer will be hugely costly.

“We haven’t enjoyed ourselves the last two games because not only did we lose, we did not play up to our standards,” says Lam. “You want to come out of there being able to look at your mates, and that’s why we all play the game, effectively.

“You want to get the respect of your mates and everything outside is secondary compared to your team-mates.

“So if we go out there and get the attitude right, we’ve got a great chance. Then we’ll come off that field feeling a lot more enjoyment than we have in the last few games.”

Possible returns for the likes of Ultan Dillane and Matt Healy after injury would be a boost, although centre Bundee Aki will be missed as he serves the final game of his suspension.

Jake Heenan and Kieran Marmion

Aki can only watch on hoping that his team-mates deliver against Northampton and bring the play-off final back to the Sportsground, where Connacht would feel they can at save this disappointing season by ending it on a big high.

With Lam leaving for Bristol this summer and the loyal Connacht supporters having endured some frustrating performances during this campaign, a huge match in Galway would feel fitting.

“It’s huge,” says Heenan. “I know for me personally it was a bit disappointing to have that game against Scarlets here where we didn’t perform.

“I would personally love nothing more than to have a crack to finish here on a good note, finish our season on a good note in front of our fans and finish for Pat here, put on a really good performance.”

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