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'The fans who have been in this for the long haul are pinching themselves, wondering if it's real'

Connacht set for Grenoble mission with a home European semi-final very much on their minds.

John Muldoon Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

WITH EVERY PASSING game, the prizes at stake for Connacht come into sharper and sharper focus.

But Pat Lam’s vision is laser-like in its precision, and his mission this week is clear: win in Grenoble and bring European rugby back to the Sportsground for another night to savour.

Forget about the combinations and permutations of the Pro12 shakeup, and the Champions Cup qualification which is almost secure. Time is nearly up on this remarkable season, no matter how it ends, and every opportunity to excel and entertain as a group has to be seized.

“This game, for us, is no different to playing Ulster last week or Leinster,” Lam explained ahead of Saturday’s Challenge Cup quarter-final in the south of France.

“It’s another game, another chance to perform as a team. The season is coming to an end and we see every game as an opportunity to play together.

We’re all excited by this. We look at Grenoble and they’re not the normal French team.

“Obviously Bernard Jackman is the head coach and they like to move the ball. It’s going to be a fast and exciting game.”

Knockout rugby in France hasn’t always been the most fruitful for the Irish provinces, but Connacht aren’t haunted by bitter memories to the same extent as their neighbours, and Lam has no fear.

“We enjoy travelling and particularly to France,” he added. “We’ve had a good record over there but it’s just another game for us. It’s a chance to play someone different.

“Looking at them, it’s going to be a cracker of the game and the forecast is good. Both teams like to use the ball and we’re excited by it.

Our performance in each game determines the following games. If we perform and win this weekend, we get another game. A semi-final here at the Sportsground would be fantastic for our supporters.

For captain John Muldoon a win — and the guarantee of at least one more home game — would allow him another precious opportunity to soak up the good times having battled through so many of the bad.

“There’s two different types of supporters now,” the 33-year-old said.

There’s people who have been in for the long haul and they’re pinching themselves, wondering if this is real. They’re the people who were probably here before there was ever a stand. They’ve been used to dark, dreary nights.

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“Then there’s the new type of supporter that has probably been here for the last year, two years, three years, probably on the back of the other provinces’ and the Irish team’s success. They’re probably buying into rugby and they’re probably seeing the success that has somewhat come from Connacht in the last couple of years.

“We’re just delighted that they’re coming.”

Connacht have only won one of their last seven knockout matches in the Challenge Cup — against Bourgoin in 2010 before narrowly losing a home semi to Jonny Wilkinson and Toulon.

With confidence high and the Sportsground building its reputation as a fortress, Muldoon knows that a win in Grenoble is an opportunity that can’t be passed up.

“To hear other teams talk about how (the Sportsground) is a painful place to come to, but now the environment and the atmosphere on top of the conditions, how we play and now the supporters. That’s adding to everything.

It was never an easy place to come to and with everything going on, it’s becoming harder and harder to come here. I’m sure whoever might come here in a semi-final, if we get there, they won’t be looking forward to it either.

“It would be great to get out there again in this competition. We have been here with Harlequins once and Toulon, so it’s something we have done before.

“But if we got a semi again, this would probably be our most realistic chance of getting to a final. It’s exciting times.”

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Marmion and Heenan boost Connacht for European quarter in Grenoble

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Niall Kelly

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