Access exclusive podcasts, interviews and analysis with a monthly or annual membership

Become A Member
Dublin: 10°C Wednesday 12 May 2021

Connacht's rise continues under Lam as elusive silverware comes into view

The western province’s head coach believes long-term foundations are being put in place.

THE SUN SHINING down on Pat Lam’s Connacht squad as they trained yesterday summed up the feeling around the Sportsground right now.

Lam and his captain John Muldoon were bright and breezy in their press conference before the squad session, joking and bringing about a few laughs from a room that was more crowded than usual.

The team huddle Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Oftentimes in the past, the bulk of the media attention in this European week would have been focused on Munster, Leinster or Ulster, perhaps even all three of them as they faced into Champions Cup quarter-finals.

Now Connacht are the only province involved in the European knock-outs, albeit in the Challenge Cup. Saturday’s quarter-final clash with Grenoble in France [KO 8.05pm Irish time, BT Sport] is nonetheless another crucial step in the westerners’ development.

Defeat to Ulster last weekend saw Lam’s men slip to second in the Guinness Pro12 table behind Leinster, but life in Connacht is good right now. There are smiles on faces, spring in every step and genuine belief that they are here to stay as contenders.

Visiting the Sportsground for yesterday’s media event brought about memories of a first-ever meeting with Lam at this venue, soon after he had arrived as head coach in 2013.

One of the first things Lam said was that he wanted Connacht to be the number one province in Ireland within five years. Some might have laughed at that assertion at the time, but now it’s a very real notion.

“That’s what I got told when I arrived here,” says Lam when reminded of his early target with Connacht. “Slowly all the pieces have fallen nicely.”

The appointment of former Connacht fullback Willie Ruane as the province’s CEO in 2014, replacing Tom Sears, was important in providing stability, continues Lam, allowing him to focus purely on the rugby.

Pat Lam Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Lam won’t be drawn into professing that Connacht are close to being the best province in Ireland, but he is confident that their remarkable season so far is not going to prove a mere blip before a return to mid-table fare.

“When you step back and look at the Connacht house, it’s built on the Connacht way of doing things, which is important, and that house is looking really strong,” says Lam.

“And it’s good because the way it is set up, one day both of us [himself and Muldoon] will be gone, and when the next people can come in they’ll work with a much more solid foundation of a house.”

Watching Connacht going through some of their session under the Galway sun yesterday, the focus on handling skills and decision-making was clear.

Simple drills done at speed and with precision; it’s not rocket science and it’s certainly not glamorous. Repetition at as close to match intensity as possible. Lam and skills coach Dave Ellis fire out cues and encouragement as the players work through passing drills familiar to rugby teams around the world.

After the main squad session, most players remain out on the back pitch at the Sportsground, working in small groups on core aspects of the game such as passing, throwing, tackling, rucking and running lines.

The skills development in Connacht under Lam has been well documented at this stage, though the process itself has morphed since his first season in charge.

“I’ve brought sheets in to help us understand what we’ve done well and what we didn’t do well,” explains Lam. “It’s a sheet for them to go through and cut their [video analysis] clips with. It was about training them into that process, but most of the squad can run it now. It’s just become part of what we do.

“And it’s a good one, because they send an email to all the coaches on a Sunday and I have a little read through. If it’s fine, I don’t say anything, but you can pick up a player’s self-awareness on it.

Be part
of the team

Access exclusive podcasts, interviews and analysis with a monthly or annual membership.

Become a Member

Denis Buckley Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“Straight away, if a guy has made an error on the weekend you look for that on the sheet, but you also look for things they’ve done well.

“The other thing is that I like the reps, I want to know how many [they've done]. Don’t tell me you’ve been passing, I want to know how many passes you want to do – five on my left, five on my right or 10… then it just creates good conversations.

“John might have a conversation with Jimmy [Duffy, the forwards coach] or Dave [Ellis], I don’t need to know about it. We just talk about it as coaches. Before, they all had to come to me and I’d to go through it with them. Thankfully, I’ve now got more free time to speak to you guys!”

The progress Connacht have made and continue to make is quite clear, though they are now at a point where a trophy feels like a natural step.

Captain Muldoon indicated yesterday that he and the players are thinking that way. Connacht have all but achieved their main goal of Champions Cup rugby and will take pride in competing in the top tier European competition next season, but there is now hunger to round out this incredible campaign with silverware.

“If we finish the season on May the 7th, it will be a disappointment. I spoke in the dressing room after the Leinster game, and said it’s nice to be here, have the win and it’s nice to be celebrating, but if we finish on May 7th, what’s it all been for?

“Yes, we want to push on and be there at the business end of things. I think the best thing is that we’ve got our destiny in our own hands. We’re not waiting or hoping that Leinster win to get us into the Champions Cup. We have our own destiny in our hands and if we’re good enough, we’ll be there at the end of May. It’s an exciting couple of weeks ahead.”

Bundee Aki Bundee Aki has been a key recruit for Pat Lam's squad. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Lam is a little more hesitant to proclaim his intention to win a trophy, but does say Connacht feel they have a rare opportunity with a quarter-final ahead this weekend and the carrot of a Pro12 semi-final dangling in front of them too.

“If we get our main goal to get Connacht there [the Champions Cup] then we’re there, but ultimately for these guys, because it won’t be the same squad every year, this is our chance, and particularly for guys at the back end of their careers, this is a genuine chance.

“If we perform well in this weekend’s game, one of those semis is achieved. Then we come back and we’ve another three Pro12 games to determine if we get another semi-final, and then how we perform in those two semis determines the finals.

“So we’ve put ourselves in the position where we all know, this time last year and all the other years, we weren’t here. It wasn’t even an issue. We weren’t even in this position.”

The latest hurdle in Connacht’s quest for glory is Bernard Jackman’s Grenoble, who sit comfortably in eight in the Top 14 and will have ideas of their own about claiming a piece of silverware.

Lam says he can see several similarities between his team and Grenoble, particularly in how they attack, but points to one key separating factor.

“I’ll you what’s a major difference; their budget is massive,” says Lam. “And that’s the number one major difference in the French league and what we have. It just means that Bernard is shopping in Marks & Spencer, and we’re shopping in… I won’t say where or put a name to it!

“However, what it does show is that both teams are very much around culture and teamwork. So it’s exciting that it’s one good team against another good team.”

The42 is on Snapchat! Tap the button below on your phone to add!

Marmion and Heenan boost Connacht for European quarter in Grenoble

David Pocock hit with three-week ban for this ‘choke hold’ on opponent

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

Read next: