Pat Lam goes all Rafa Benitez to defend Connacht from criticism
Proud Connacht coach hails his over-achieving squad for coping with 'disruptions'
Pat Lam came prepared for yesterday's press briefing at the Sportsground, armed with a sheet of stats designed to outline his side's success this season.
On Friday night, Connacht fell to the kind of defeat that haunted their past, a last-gasp one-pointer in Treviso that might, had Ulster not beaten Leinster, have derailed their ambitions of a home semi-final.
The document Lam distributed, mid-flow to emphasise his point that Connacht are punching firmly above their weight, outlined the number of internationals each team in the Guinness Pro12 have and the number of caps between them.
Although they are second on the league table, the Westerners are joint-bottom of the 'number of internationals' ledger with the Dragons. Both sides have nine players, but while the Welsh region's players have 123 caps between them, Connacht have just 57.
In contrast, Saturday's opponents Glasgow Warriors have 40 internationals with a combined 735 caps.
It had echoes of Rafael Benitez's infamous 'Facts' press conference during his time at Liverpool, but Lam was doing it from a position of strength. Unhappy at criticism that he made changes to his team for the Treviso defeat, he is keen to emphasise that his team remain in control of their own destiny.
"The reason why I am showing that is to highlight the fact that it has been an unbelievable effort that we sit here with an opportunity to win a game and finish top of the league, when you consider the quality of players that are in other teams," he said.
"People criticise that we change (the team), we had three or four academy boys involved last week. . . it was a great learning experience. But to get to a point where semi-finals are guaranteed, and home semi-finals are in our control, it's a wonderful effort from all involved."
Connacht's rivals would argue that, in a World Cup year, the lack of internationals has worked in the former No 8's favour as he was able to select with more continuity.
"Not once this year have I been able to play the best XV, if I wrote it down on paper at the start of the season," Lam argued. "Not once, for 22 rounds, have I been able to name the same team.
"People highlight World Cup and they highlight Six Nations. . . the bottom line is we have had guys who are unavailable through injury, through internationals.
"We are also the only team in the whole competition that stayed in the top four for 22 rounds, which highlights the consistency despite all of the disruptions and changes we have made.
"There is no doubt if you said to a coach, any coach; 'what would you like? Would you like 40 internationals and having guys going off to (international rugby), but you can replace them?'. Sometimes some teams have three internationals in the same position.
"Alright, 'well, would you like the situation we face?' I'd tell you where most people would choose. . .
"It's a real credit to everyone in the organisation - players, management, (administration) staff - on what we are doing within our rugby programme, to have that level of consistency to have the opportunity to finish top of the league."
Connacht's success has seen their stock rise in many ways and Lam revealed that the province are in demand from prospective players who have taken to emailing him directly looking for a move. The signing of the highly-rated Cian Kelleher from Leinster is a coup and the head coach as he looks to build beyond this season.
"We've got our succession plan, our contract committee, which consists of myself, (chief executive) Willie (Ruane) and (manager) Tim (Allnut) and it's quite a well-structured process. From my role with the coaches, we see where it fits in our succession plan," he explained.
"I wrote up a succession plan for five years when I first came here The age profile of the team and the age of the guys coming through is fantastic. We've guys who are 22/23, and by the time I get to my fifth year, I'll have 25/26 year olds who'll have over 100 caps for Connacht which is great.
"So when players come in, I have to work out where they fit, so when we heard Cian was available and keen (we asked) does he fit into what we need? Does he fit in? Absolutely - and then that process moves on to Tim.
"In my fourth season next year, having guys who were with me for the majority of that, is fantastic, because we continue to build and add (to the squad)."
That process continues as Lam looks to continue the over-achievement by building on this season.