Last Irishmen standing ready to make giant leap in Europe
Published 06/04/2016 | 02:30
Every seat in the small media room at the Sportsground was taken yesterday as Connacht got used to life as the only show in town.
The traditional powers are all watching on enviously this weekend as Pat Lam's team bid to reach a European semi-final by beating Bernard Jackman's Grenoble to set up a big finish to their season in the sun with a fitting finish. It might not give them a leg-up in the Pro12 play-off race, but every one of the other provinces would take the option of being involved this weekend if they could.
If the former Samoa international has his way, they're going to need a bigger room for their press engagements because he is determined to ensure that the success of 2015/'16 is not a once-off.
Now in year three of a five-year cycle as coach of the province, Lam believes that there is solid foundations to the work that he has done in Galway.
"We've come a long way from year one, and that's everybody," he reflected yesterday. "I'm very much a vision man and then you have to put the structures in place and the process, and that's not just the game, it's everything.
"Then, slowly, all the pieces have fallen nicely. Willie Ruane (Connacht's chief executive) was probably the biggest key that was missing here because, when I came here, the CEO (Tom Sears) didn't last too much longer and we went a whole year without a CEO.
"Willie came in and has been able to manage all those other areas around our governance and so that allowed me to just focus on the team, and then we're all aligned.
"So when you step back and look at the Connacht house, if you like, built on the Connacht way of doing things, which is important, that house is looking really strong. And it's good because the way it is set up, one day both (captain John Muldoon and I) will be gone, and if the next people can come in they'll work with a much more solid foundation of a house."
Given all the recent success, it is understandable that fans are beginning to talk giddily about trophies.
As the Pro12 heavyweights begin to flex their muscle and recall their internationals, the smart money is on Europe's secondary competition being the more realistic avenue to end the western province's wait for a trophy.
That would put a cherry on all of the progress they have made, but Lam is keen that the season isn't defined by whether there is silverware in the cabinet at the end of the campaign.
"Our number one goal is to get into that Champions Cup. At the end of the day a trophy doesn't define a team," he said.
"One team wins a trophy in that season and it could be anything, but once they win that trophy it doesn't mean everyone else is a failure.
"We strive to get there but I think the most important sustainable thing is your structures because you need to continue competing. I don't want to win a trophy and think Connacht have made it, because they haven't.
"That's just an outcome. What it has to be is that we are constantly playing in the Champions Cup at the top level every year, we are bringing through more players who are playing for Ireland and there are more indigenous Connacht players coming through.
"Eric (Elwood), Nigel (Carolan) and myself are building those pillars if you like and we're putting things in place because the three of us will be gone. And that to me is true success, that Connacht will be here for many years to come, and people continue to drive it on."
For all the talk of development, Lam concedes that failure to capitalise on this opportunity would be a disappointment.
"Without a doubt, before the Leinster game, I said, 'We've six games, and the way we perform in these six determines two semis and two finals'," he said. "We back ourselves and if we don't perform in these six, and miss out on those bonus games, as a team we'll be disappointed.
"If we get our main goal to get Connacht there (the Champions Cup) then we're there. But, ultimately, for these guys, because it won't be the same squad every year, this is our chance, and particularly for guys at the back end of their careers, this is a genuine chance.
"We've had two games, we've won one, we've lost one, and now this week's game is on the block. If we perform well in this one, one of those semis is achieved. Then we come back and we've another three Pro12 games to determine if we get another semi-final, and then how we perform in those two semis determines the finals. We've put ourselves in the position... this time last year and all the other years, we weren't here. It wasn't even an issue. We weren't even in this position."
Both Jackman and Lam have pointed out the similarities between their sides and the attacking philosophies they employ, with the Samoan even recognising one of his old Auckland moves being used by Grenoble during his video review.
Yet, for all that the bookies have both sides priced as 12/1 outsiders for the competition, Lam has pointed out a critical difference between the two clubs.
"Their budget is massive," he said. "That's the number one major difference in the French league and what we have. It just means that Bernard is shopping in Marks & Spencer, and we're shopping in… I won't put a name to it.
"Both teams are very much built around culture and team and work. So that's what's exciting, it's one good team against another good team."
If his "good team" can come out on top, then a home semi-final - and a fitting finale to a fine season - beckon.