‘If we’re going to win I want it to be against the best side’
Standing strong in Galway is one thing but Lam knows Leinster are cut above
PREDICTIONS of Connacht’s collapse have been heard almost weekly since this season was in its infancy. It was said that once the going got tough and their lack of depth was exposed, they would fall away.
It has not happened. First they reached the PRO12 play-offs for the first time, and now, having beaten Glasgow Warriors last week, they are in the final itself. If today at BT Murrayfield they end up second best to Leinster, it will surely only be after giving a good account of themselves.
The big question, of course, is how Pat Lam’s side adapt to the psychological pressures of being in a big one-off match for the first time. Their self-confidence has been unshakable at their own Sportsground in Galway, but what will it be like at a neutral venue, in front of a record crowd for the fixture?
Lam, who possibly has more big-game experience than the rest of his squad put together, accepted that he might have to try to calm his players down in the last moments before kickoff. But he has set great store on having as normal a build-up as possible for this game, and will tell his players to go out and do once more what they have done so well and so often this season: play winning rugby.
“We take every game and every week as an opportunity to grow and learn,” the head coach said. “Because of that process we have been able to have a normal week.
“We had an option to do a camp last week, or something special. But we know it’s a big game and there’s a lot going on around this, but ultimately it’s always about the rugby pitch and two teams playing rugby. If you channel all the emotion into that, then you’ll have a great chance.
“That was one of my big lessons as a rugby player at international level – if you get caught up with the distractions as a team then you’ll come off second best. Everything we have done this week has prepared us for this moment.”
Of course, no matter how well Connacht have prepared, the fact is that this is fresh territory for them. Leinster, by contrast, have been here before time and time again. They have three European Cups to their name, the first of them having been won at Murrayfield seven years ago, and they have also won the PRO12 four times, most recently two years ago. What is more, their semi-final display against Ulster suggested that they are hitting their best form at exactly the right time.
Not that Lam feels at all intimidated by that. Indeed, he suggested he would not have it any other way. “It’s good for Irish rugby that they’re coming good,” he added.
“They’re all quality players. It’s good going into a game that we’re clear about what we’re up against. We are under no illusions that they are on form. They played really well last week. Fourteen of those guys will be touring South Africa (with Ireland), but if we’re going to win this thing I want to win it against the best possible team.”
This is not quite the best possible Leinster team, as two first-choice players are out. Isa Nacewa, the fullback and captain, has arm damage, while lock Devin Toner has stayed at home because of a family bereavement.
But Rob Kearney, who replaces Nacewa, is an experienced, quality fullback in his own right. Ross Molony, Toner’s replacement, is relatively inexperienced at 22, but his coach, Leo Cullen, has faith in his ability to step into the pack and call the shots at the lineout.
“I don’t think it has a massive effect,” Cullen said. “I think Ross calls really well, he leads the lineout well, and in some pretty big games this season he’s performed at a really high level.”
Besides relying on their own attacking game, Leinster will also have to halt Connacht centre Bundee Aki, the PRO12 player of the season. If they do that, they could win with a little to spare, but if Aki is allowed to build up some momentum he could inspire his team to clear that final hurdle and round off a remarkable season in style.
(BT Murrayfield, today, 5.30pm): T O’Halloran; N Adeolokun, R Henshaw, B Aki, M Healy; A MacGinty, K Marmion; R Loughney, T McCartney, F Bealham, U Dillane, A Muldowney, E McKeon, J Heenan, J Muldoon. D Heffernan, JP Cooney, R Ah You, A Browne, S O’Brien, J Cooney, S O’Leary, P Robb.
R Kearney; D Kearney, G Ringrose, B Te’o, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, E Reddan; J McGrath, R Strauss, M Ross, R Molony, M Kearney, R Ruddock, J Murphy, J Heaslip. S Cronin, P Dooley, T Furlong, H Triggs, J Conan, L McGrath, I Madigan, Z Kirchner.
FINAL PREPARATIONS: Connacht coach Pat Lam at Murrayfield yesterday.