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Lessons from a winter of discontent pushed Connacht back on path to their peak

Pat Lam is plotting Ulster’s downfall tonight, but he says there’s no point in comparing Connacht’s form now with how they looked in May.
Oct 7th 2016, 12:25 AM 5,262 1

FOR CONNACHT, TONIGHT (19.35, TG4) represents another swing at a final frontier of sorts.

They’ve been to the mountain top, claimed the Guinness Pro12 title in truly remarkable fashion and beaten bordering provinces to the east and south along the way.

Pat Lam with Les Kiss Kiss and Lam have a chat before Ulster's win in the Sportsground in December. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Ulster though, have somehow remained unshaken by the seismic shift in Connacht Rugby. The western province have not claimed a win over their neighbours to the north since 2012, before Pat Lam’s time, and that was a point he has been keen to address from early on this week.

The formbook points only way again, however, as Les Kiss’ side have won all five of their fixtures and sit proudly at the top of the league table.

Connacht though, have found a spark. We won’t know if the early-season struggles are behind them until full-time, but all the way through losses to Glasgow, Ospreys, Scarlets and a timely postponement away to Zebre one thing has been clear: how Lam planned to arrest the slump.

“It’s only happened because the boys go out and do the work,” says the imposing Samoan head coach.

“That’s why, right through all those games and people asking me: ‘what’s going on?’ ‘Crisis’, and all this sort of stuff, I said: ‘the boys are working’.

John Muldoon and Pat Lam Source: Matteo Ciambelli/INPHO

“The only way you get on with it is get on with with work. Every day the boys are getting better, which transpires with games getting better.

“The beauty of setting a good standard in the way you want to play is that you have a reference point. When we’re talking about things to improve on, we have a good reference point.

“Some of the stats completely changed and we recognise that things like possession and territory and passes completed were way down on what we were able to do before.”

It was more than just the muscle memory of high performance that is pushing their performance back up, it’s the experience of having seen the same numbers dip before. We’re not talking about the dim and distant past when Connacht were perennial strugglers, Lam is looking at last winter when a Challenge Cup win over Newcastle was their only success in seven.

“We’re  getting judged on April and May. That took a lot of work (to get there) we’re no different to where we were in January-December last season when we went four or five (without a win). Once you acknowledge that to the team, the boys recognise that it takes work to where we need to be.”

“I said it to the players: ‘we’ve been here before,’ captain John Muldoon juts in.

“What did we do back then? We went back and we worked hard at certain areas and we saw results straight away.

We weren’t panicking and we weren’t getting too worried, but also when you get a good win like last weekend — yes, we made mistakes, but —  it helps to have a win to reinforce everything we did well during the week and in the previous weeks that helped us get that result.”

Last Friday’s win over Edinburgh was notable because the winners did not in anyway resemble a side low on confidence, lower on the table and absolutely soaked through with the rain. They were Connacht. They attacked, they ran the ball, they popped it up and were totally unafraid of making mistakes.

“There’s a belief deep down,” Muldoon says, “that if we get things right, we will win our matches. There’s a belief in our ability which you cannot underestimate.  Pat talks about doing the right things in training and being able to do the right things.”

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Paddy Jackson Source: Craig Watson/INPHO

Ulster and Kiss know that Connacht are lying in wait, itching to complete their set of scalps from their better-funded friends around the island. While they have bang-in-form men in the form of Paddy Jackson and Louis Ludik, a returning Tommy Bowe and the redoubtable presence of Rory Best leading at the coal-face, their lengthy injury list now also includes Charles Piutau.

Perfect game

Connacht have extensive injury problems of their own, not least Tom McCartney and Kieran Marmion, but the positive signs of gears clicking in to place were clear and they will be relishing this second of three straight home fixtures.

“We couldn’t get a better game than we have this week,” Lam states with that infectious positivity, “the one undefeated team in the Pro12, full of stars and humming nicely.

“Before we get in to Champions Cup rugby if you could ask me which game I wanted to play, this is the game we need. Because it requires us to go to another level. We have to be at our best.”

Connacht

15. Tiernan O’Halloran
14. Niyi Adeolokun
13. Bundee Aki
12. Craig Ronaldson
11. Cian Kelleher
10 Jack Carty
9. Caolin Blade

1. Finlay Bealham
2. Dave Heffernan
3. Conor Carey
4. Ultan Dillane
5. Andrew Browne
6. Eoin McKeon
7. Jake Heenan
8. John Muldoon (Capt.)

Replacements:

16. Shane Delahunt
17. Ronan Loughney
18. JP Cooney
19. Lewis Stevenson
20. James Connolly
21. Stephen Kerins
22. Shane O’Leary
23. Stacey Ili

Ulster

15. Jared Payne (Capt)
14. Tommy Bowe
13. Louis Ludik
12. Darren Cave
11. Craig Gilroy
10. Paddy Jackson
9. Paul Marshall

1. Callum Black
2. Rory Best
3. Rodney Ah You
4. Robbie Diack
5. Pete Browne
6. Iain Henderson
7. Clive Ross
8. Roger Wilson

Replacements:

16. Rob Herring
17. Andy Warwick
18. Ross Kane
19. Kieran Treadwell
20. Sean Reidy
21. Dave Shanahan
22. Brett Herron
23. Rob Lyttle

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