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Champions Cup dream alive as Connacht turn focus to Gloucester
Head coach Pat Lam was ‘really proud’ of his side’s effort against the Ospreys yesterday.

THEY DON’T DO things the easy way in Connacht.

Having missed out on the their firmly stated ambition of a top six finish, Pat Lam’s men now face the demanding prospect of coming through the new play-off system if they are to secure a place in next season’s Champions Cup.

Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki and Jack Carty after the game James Crombie / INPHO Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki and Jack Carty remain positive. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

First, they’ll have to beat Gloucester at Kingsholm next Sunday [KO 15.30] and if they achieve that, they’ll then face the Top 14′s seventh-place finisher at the Sportsground on Sunday, 31 May [KO 17.00] for a Champions Cup spot.

It looks as though one of Oyonnax, Racing Métro and Bordeaux will be that French side lying in wait, but lose to Gloucester and Connacht’s dream is over at the first step. All attention is on next weekend and a trip to the south west of England.

The Irish province have already lost in Kingsholm this season, going down 14-7 in the Challenge Cup quarter-finals after a majorly disappointing first-half performance was almost compensated for thanks to improvements after the break.

It was a remarkably similar story in yesterday’s defeat to the Ospreys in Galway, when Connacht came back from a 24-0 half-time deficit to finish 24-20 losers.

“We have to take the lesson [from Kingsholm],” said Lam yesterday after the loss to the Ospreys.

“[Gloucester] had two opportunities and took them. It was tricky conditions over there and they had us and then we came back with a strong second-half but again came up short. We have to start better.”

Pat Lam James Crombie / INPHO Lam believes his young side will only improve with experience. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Lam admitted to concern over the number of “walking wounded” in his squad and said “you could name a pretty strong starting team with the guys that are missing”.

Indeed, there is further worry over the ankle of scrum-half Kieran Marmion, who limped off in the second half. Replacement halfback John Cooney delivered his latest strong performance, however, and that underlines another crucial point.

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Even with a high number of injuries, Connacht still have players capable of more rounded 80-minute displays. One always felt the Ospreys could score again yesterday if they had really needed to, but Lam’s men again showed their attacking quality in the second-half revival.

“Some people say we don’t care and that’s rubbish,” said Lam post-match. “We showed that in the second half once we were able to control the ball, make our tackles and get into it. I’m really proud of the effort.

“We came in at half time and kept it really calm. I normally show some clips on the video, but I didn’t bother with that because we just knew we had to get back into our game.

“We just had to get back into our shape and come back to run them close. We ran out of time in the end, but it just shows what this team is made of.”

Adrian Leddy James Crombie / INPHO Connacht branch president Adrian Leddy speaks at the province's awards ball last night. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

While Connacht did enjoy a strong win last weekend away to Zebre, they have lost five of their most recent six games in this crucial Guinness Pro12 run-in. Lam is not concerned that his side don’t bring more winning momentum to Gloucester though, simply saying “we’ve won games on the back of games that we’ve lost.”

The possibility of Champions Cup rugby is still alive, and Lam was adamant that Connacht should be proud of their seventh-place finish in the Pro12 table this season.

Having signed a three-year deal in January, he’s here for the long haul and understands that every experience counts for his young team.

“It will only come on the lessons we’ve learned and the quality of games that people like Jack Carty, Darragh Leader, Kieran Marmion and Denis Buckley play. Those guys playing these sort of games is massive for their development as we build for the years to come.”

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