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Lam created a legacy for Connacht that will live long beyond his departure

‘Bad timing’ won’t be an issue for a very focused group of Connacht players.

Image: James Crombie/INPHO

Wasps v Connacht, Champions Cup Pool 5

Ricoh Arena, kick-off 13.00, Sky Sports

AS CONNACHT HEAD into the biggest game of their season so far, it’s impossible to shake the memory of the finest hour from the last campaign — a performance which was arguably the most thrillingly entertaining to grace a rugby field in all of 2016.

The momentous Grand Final victory over Leinster in May was Connacht’s 31st match of last season, yet the very first in which Pat Lam was able to name an unchanged team.

Through a combination of factors – injuries, international call-ups and tempting offers from elsewhere – every rugby coach must put measures in place to to ensure success does not rest on a handful of figures. Due to their modest depth chart though, the smooth way in which Connacht and Lam move on with a variety of faces is all the more impressive.

At various points last season they had to do without Ultan Dillane, without Jake Heenan, John Muldoon, Quinn Roux, Kieran Marmion, Craig Ronaldson, Tom McCartney,  Bundee Aki, Jack Carty and Robbie Henshaw. Each time they moved on. Each time they trusted in the plan, the ethos, the philosophy behind the way they go about their game.

The trouble is that 2017 will see Connacht lose two of the men who created that culture. Dave Ellis will finish up his duties as the western province’s skills coach just a few hours before he rings in the New Year. Lam, as you couldn’t possibly have escaped this week, will take over as head coach in Bristol next summer.

The Samoan will leave big gilet to fill having massively overshot expectations last season when everything came together perfectly to deliver a trophy in jaw-dropping style. And yet, just as players have slipped in and out of the squad with limited disruption to the overall direction of the team, Lam has built an environment where he is now replaceable.

The legacy he leaves behind is indelible. 2016 won’t be just a wistful memory, it will live on fueling belief and driving standards long on the Atlantic coast long after Lam has re-settled to life in England and someone else is forging a new gameplan.

Pat Lam and John Muldoon Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The news early this week caused some unrest, naturally. But John Muldoon and other leaders around the Connacht squad will have ensured that the process of moving on will begin at the Ricoh Arena. Off-field distractions won’t be an excuse the Portumna man is likely to accept from any of his charges.

The task facing the western province is difficult enough without losing focus. Kurtley Beale is a new addition to an already potent Wasps back-line and they have some of the most fearsome ball-carriers around in the shape of Ashley Johnson and Nathan Hughes.

Cian Kelleher Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Connacht aren’t short on star power or muscular carriers themselves. Ultan Dillane, Tiernan O’Halloran, Kieran Marmion and Niyi Adeolokun have returned from international duty while Cian Kelleher has been in electric form since his move from Leinster.

As ever in Connacht, the budgets aren’t comparable, but that hasn’t stopped them often of late.

 

Wasps:

15.  Rob Miller
14. Christian Wade
13. Alapati Leiua
12.  Kurtley Beale
11. Josh Bassett
10. Jimmy Gopperth
9. Dan Robson

1. Matt Mullan
2. Tommy Taylor
3. Marty Moore
4. Joe Launchbury (Captain)
5. Kearnan Myall
6. Ashley Johnson
7. Thomas Young
8. Nathan Hughes

Replacements

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16.          Alex Rieder
17.           Tom Bristow
18.          Jake Cooper-Woolley
19.          James Gaskell
20.         Guy Thompson
21.          Joe Simpson
22.         Brendan Macken
23.         Frank Halai

Connacht: 

15.           Tiernan O’Halloran
14.           Niyi Adeolokun
13.           Stacey Ili
12.           Bundee Aki
11.           Cian Kelleher
10.           Jack Carty
9.             Kieran Marmion

1.             Denis Buckley
2.             Tom McCartney
3.             Conor Carey
4.             Ultan Dillane
5.             Quinn Roux
6.             Nepia Fox-Matamua
7.             Jake Heenan
8.             John Muldoon (captain)

Replacements:

16.           Dave Heffernan
17.           JP Cooney
18.           Finlay Bealham
19.           Sean O’Brien
20.           Eoin McKeon
21.           Caolin Blade
22.           Rory Parata
23.           Matt Healy

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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