Lam calls for final push to earn lucrative Champions Cup place
Published 23/05/2015 | 02:30
Not exactly a million dollar shoot-out but, for the winners of Connacht's clash with Gloucester tomorrow, the chance to emerge from a play-off against a French side next weekend which could earn the victors a significant financial boost ahead of next season.
The stakes are high - the professional ambition is to join the Champions Cup eilte, while the bean counters will be eyeing up the potential earnings, perhaps soaring beyond €500,000 from all the bells and whistles that top competition can accrue.
Pat Lam's men know that plying their trade at the highest possible level is vital for their development and, as captain John Muldoon has alluded to, keeping their best talents, from home-grown star Robbie Henshaw to his still uncertain Ireland wannabe, New Zealander Bundee Aki.
Aki's return for this clash - and the absence of his ineffective compatriot Mils Muiliaina, who was arrested after the Challenge Cup defeat at Kingsholm two months ago -gives the Westerners hope of turning the tables on Gloucester.
Fatigue might be Connacht's biggest fear in their attempts to avoid returning to that competition next term.
Gloucester, guided now by former Ireland out-half and Ulster director of rugby David Humphreys, were able to rest a dozen of their front-liners last week against Bath.
"At this stage of the season, our small squad is pretty badly hit with injuries and that list of unavailable players has grown even further now with Kieran Marmion out for us as well," bemoaned Lam after his scrum-half was sidelined with knee trouble.
"We're going up against a quality Gloucester side stacked with international players coming off the back of a week's rest.
"There's no doubt they have the advantage playing in their home ground so we know we will have to be at our very best.
"Our season goal was to finish in the top six so we could qualify automatically for Champions Cup rugby next season. While seventh is a record finish for Connacht in the Pro12, we still have this opportunity so there's huge motivation."
Gloucester retain just three - Henry Purdy, Nick Wood and Dan Thomas - from last week with seven internationals, Charlie Sharples, Jonny May, James Hook, Greig Laidlaw, Richard Hibbard, John Afoa and Tom Palmer in their side.
"We expect our top players to produce top performances," said Humphreys.
An entirely new back-row reflects their thought process after the 14-7 victory when the sides last met.
If Connacht don't start well, a recurring problem in recent times, their race could be run all too early.
Gloucester - C Sharples; J May, B Meakes, B Twelvetrees (capt), H Purdy; J Hook, G Laidlaw; N Wood, R Hibbard, J Afoa, T Savage, T Palmer; J Rowan, D Thomas, R Moriarty. Reps: D Dawidiuk, Y Thomas, S Knight, E Stooke, L Ludlow, D Robson, B Burns, R Cook.
Connacht - T O'Halloran; F Carr, R Henshaw, B Aki, M Healy; J Carty, J Cooney; D Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You, G Naoupu, A Muldowney, J Muldoon (capt), E Masterson, E McKeon. Reps: D Heffernan, JP Cooney, F Bealham, A Browne, J Connolly, I Porter, M Nikora, S O'Leary.
Ref - R Poite (FFR).
Gloucester v Connacht, live, BT Sport 1, tomorrow, 3.30