‘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

The Herald - Herald Sport - - RUGBY UNION - STU­ART BATHGATE

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.

Pic­ture: SNS

FINAL PREPA­RA­TIONS: Con­nacht coach Pat Lam at Mur­ray­field yes­ter­day.

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