Lam's frontrunners face major test of credentials
Published 04/03/2016 | 02:30
Anyone in doubt of the awakening out west must surely have been convinced by Ultan Dillane's cameo at Twickenham last weekend.
Here was a product of Tralee RFC by way of the Connacht academy taking on England like an All Black lock, breaking lines, passing the ball and generally looking the part.
Pat Lam's team may have the lowest representation of all the provinces in Joe Schmidt's squad, but they continue to lead the way on top of the Guinness Pro12 and are, at the very least, on track to qualify for the European Champions Cup next season.
Dillane embodies their confidence on the pitch, but the reason for doubting their credentials is the tricky run-in that awaits them, starting with tonight's trip to a venue where the home side have suffered just one defeat all season.
After Edinburgh, Connacht face Leinster at home, Ulster away and Munster at home in successive fixtures, before they finish with a trip to Treviso and a home game against Glasgow Warriors, who are currently in seventh spot, 15 points behind them.
Having missed out so narrowly last season, there is no doubting that Connacht will take nothing for granted in the coming weeks but, while publicly, their eye will be on securing that top-six finish, privately they'll be targeting a first play-off spot in their history.
With all four provinces involved in the race for Europe, Lam knows that even a top six finish may not be enough because of the bizarre arrangement that means one team from each country must have an entrant in the Champions Cup.
"You have got to have a Scottish team in there, an Irish team and a Welsh team, and an Italian team," Lam said of qualification.
"The beauty about it, there are so many unknowns. That probably is a good thing because it then makes us focus on what we have to do, rather than worry too much about outsiders.
"Our number one goal is being in Champions Cup. But then we break that down again, and then our number one goal every week is to win and get the points.
"Every single team in the competition, from day one, what's the objective? It's to win the thing. But our main goal is to get into Champions Cup and then we focus on winning."
What makes tonight's game so crucial for the western province is that they can do serious damage to a top-four rival by securing a result.
While Lam must make do without Dillane and Robbie Henshaw, who have not been released by Schmidt, with the second-row now likely to start next week against Italy, Edinburgh must cope without five Scotland players, including destructive tighthead prop WP Nel and flanker John Hardie.
Both teams have sizeable injury lists, but the men from the Scottish capital have a decent squad and have welcomed Matt Scott, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Rory Sutherland back from the national team.
Nathan White returns for Connacht after coming off the bench against England to good effect.
There have been clarion calls for Matt Healy's inclusion in the national set-up, while Denis Buckley must surely be close, but Schmidt's loss has been Connacht's gain.
Never the most intimidating of venues, Murrayfield has been a happy hunting ground for Connacht in recent seasons, and they have won in two of the last three visits to Edinburgh.
Alan Solomons has improved his squad considerably this campaign and Edinburgh are a sizeable outfit who look to bully opponents. His side have a strong set-piece and carry hard, but Connacht will be confident of being able to deal with their threats.
Lam has been able to pick a strong side, with his first-choice front-row of Buckley, Tom McCartney and White available and Quinn Roux and Aly Muldowney in the second-row.
The coach will hope his back-row can cope with the muscular Scots, while he has game-breakers in the backline who will hope to play off the brilliant Bundee Aki.
Connacht are looking to extend their winning run ahead of their series of interpros, but may have to make do with a losing bonus. It all helps towards the end goal.
EDINBURGH - B Kinghorn; D Hoyland, C Dean, M Scott, T Brown; P Burleigh, S Hidalgo-Clyne; R Sutherland, N Cochrane, J Andress; A Bresler, B Toolis; J Richie, H Watson, C du Preez. Reps: G Turner, A Dell, S Berghan, A Toolis, M Bradbury, S Kennedy, S Beard, D Fife.
CONNACHT - T O'Halloran; D Poolman, B Aki, C Ronaldson, M Healy; AJ MacGinty, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, N White; Q Roux, A Muldowney; S O'Brien, J Heenan, J Muldoon. Reps: D Heffernan, F Bealham, R Ah You, D Qualter, E McKeon, C Blade, P Robb, F Carr.
Ref - B Whitehouse (Wales)
Edinburgh v Connacht, Live, TG4, 7.35