Friday 20 January 2017

'This is where Connacht need to be' - Lam

Pro12 champions hoping 'rusty' start to season will be banished in Champions Cup opener

Published 12/10/2016 | 02:30

Bundee Aki helps John Muldoon with his training top at the Sportsground yesterday Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Bundee Aki helps John Muldoon with his training top at the Sportsground yesterday Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Winning the Guinness Pro12 was almost the bonus at the end of last season for Connacht. Qualifying for the Champions Cup had been the initial goal of Pat Lam's third season in charge.

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In his first, the Samoan had tasted the action of a tournament he won as a player in 2000 but, while they famously upset Toulouse, they weren't ready to challenge and got a wake-up call when they were hockeyed 64-6 away to a Saracens team building their way towards last year's win.

Now, Connacht face into Europe having qualified on their own merits, top seeds as a result of their Pro12 exploits.

And if they want to remain a competitive force who can attract and retain top players the head coach knows they will have to make this a regular occurrence.

"This is the type of rugby that Connacht Rugby needs to play," Lam said yesterday.

"I know in the past people always talked, players would ask, 'Should I go to Connacht Rugby? I want to be playing Champions Cup rugby'. That was the reason some guys left, they want to be playing in the top echelons"

They welcome a Toulouse side packed with familiar faces to Galway, but one that has fallen far from the glory days that saw them claim four European Cups.

Their budget could still comfortably secure them the Connacht squad three times over, but standards have fallen. Since they recovered from their shock defeat to the westerners to qualify for the quarter-final where they were hammered by Munster, they have failed to get out of their pool in the two years since and lost twice to Ulster last season.

Toulouse have big names and bigger bodies, but they have yet to win away from home in the Top 14 this season.

As Lam said earlier this week, the French side will look to squash their hosts but the Connacht coach is backing his side's mobility and smarts to counteract the power game.

"Without a doubt there's a difference in size, but we're used to that," he said.

"I always like to go out (before a game) and think I'm still playing, I'll look over at the opposition and think, 'Jeez, they're big'.

"But I used to get excited by that because I said, 'They'll go down hard, they'll hurt more'. It comes back to our technique, how we tackle, how we put the pressure on, get them down on the ground... we do a lot of work on that.

"Tuesdays is our tackle and contact day. Everyone goes down if you tackle well.

"There's opportunities there. It goes back to the way we can play the game, if we can put pressure on by keeping ball, or kicking well, or defending well on the gain line, that will give us a chance."

Lam bristled at the suggestion that Connacht's game-plan was found out during their patchy start to the season, arguing instead that his side's sloppiness had made them easy to defend.

Friday's impressivehome win over Ulster has done much to convince the doubters, but Lam wants more from his side.

"People were saying before when we lost those three games that people had worked us out. To me, that wasn't quite right," he argued. "We weren't doing what we were doing last year, we weren't accurate, we weren't fine-tuned, we weren't in the right places.

"Even against Ulster I truly believed when we came off that field that we should have won by more. We blew a lot of chances, although we created some, just by guys not quite in the right position of what we trained.

"When I talk about the processes and what we could do better that was definitely one of them.

"We weren't quite nailing those roles. We are getting better and better. Obviously there is the skill levels and some guys are rusty, and there's some guys coming in and learning the plays.

"If we can be true to ourselves and bring our game and all the components of it that's going to give us the best chance."

Lam wants his side to show they belong in the elite to showcase the progress they've made, starting with a first home win over Europe's most successful club.

Irish Independent

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