Connacht boss Lam has special praise for 'warrior' Muldoon as he reaches milestone
Published 04/12/2015 | 02:30
Pat Lam brings the season's unlikely lads to Cardiff and something has to give between the Pro12's two form teams - with the visitors riding the crest of a wave and the other wallowing in abject misery.
The last time this sides met in the Welsh capital, Lam's patience gave; a hugely contentious defeat and all manner of conspiracy theories regarding a 68-phase endgame and, bizarrely, the refereeing fraternity's car parking privileges caused the Westerners' season to spectacularly implode.
This time 12 months ago, Connacht were on course to secure a Champions Cup slot on merit; the controversial 18-17 defeat cost Lam's side their momentum and him personally €8,000 after the authorities frowned upon his seemingly justified outrage.
As 2014 segued into 2015, Connacht slipped into the pack of also-rans and never recovered their pre-Christmas energy; supporters will hope that this fixture doesn't deliver similar portents this time around.
It would seem unlikely based on current form, even as poor AJ MacGinty this week joined an injury list that now extends to an astonishing 15 players; whenever a coach bemoans his squad's injury status, he should recall how Connacht have managed to thrive despite such extreme handicaps.
USA World Cup breakthrough out-half MacGinty suffered a meniscal tear to his knee during the historic win in Thomond Park last Saturday, underwent arthroscopic surgery yesterday and is facing a month-long recovery period.
As he joins Robbie Henshaw and so many others in the over-populated casualty ward, it affords yet more opportunity to extend valued experience to Connacht's elongated conveyor belt of talent; Ireland U-20 centre Peter Robb will make his debut at some stage this evening.
"With the short turnaround and following a very physical game against Munster, we see some changes in the side this week," said Lam.
"While we lost four more guys to injury in the last game, we also have players coming back into contention. With competition as high as ever, it makes our job for selection that bit more difficult, but that's what we want as coaches.
"We have our structure and if we are without one player then we expect the next one to step and carry it on. The young guys are learning. They are learning fast and that's very encouraging."
Table-topping Connacht are the tournament's top try scorers (25), a tribute to their expressive style. Their only defeat in any competition this season was by a single point in against Glasgow in the second game of the season.
Their run of six successive wins in this competition is a new Connacht record; added to their brace of European successes, only Saracens have a superior record throughout Europe's three primary territories this term.
In stark contrast, Cardiff's downward spiral continues unabated and unaffected by either coaching changes or a return to the Arms Park.
They have slipped to seven straight defeats in the league, their worst run in the tournament, although they have at least picked up four losing and one try bonus point along the way.
Connacht, though, have endured worse streaks in the not-too-distant past
"Part of the learnings before I came here were 14 games without a win," Lam conceded.
"What happens when that happens, is that they are due a game, due a win. If we allow them to have that opportunity, they will take it.
"Any team like that are desperate to do anything to win. So if we open that door and give them that opportunity, there is no doubt they will take it.
"That is one of the things that we have talked about this week. If we sit around going, 'look, we are top of the table' and we listen to what everyone is saying, and we go there not fully focused, we will open the door for Cardiff."
Lam's latest injury woes force him to make eight personnel changes and one positional switch from the side that won so spectacularly at Thomond Park last weekend.
Darragh Leader comes on to the right wing for his 50th Connacht appearance, with Tiernan O'Halloran shifting to full-back. Jack Carty partners seasonal league debutant Ian Porter at half-back.
There is a new front-row with the introduction of Ronan Loughney, Dave Heffernan and Rodney Ah You, while Quinn Roux returns from injury to lock down with Aly Muldowney.
"I'd also like to give a special mention to our skipper and warrior Mul (Muldoon) who consistently epitomises what we're about and leads his province into battle for the record-breaking 200th time in the Pro12," added Lam.
The Portumna colossus (far left) remains an unswerving monument to Connacht resistance and it would be indecent were his side to falter as they seek to maintain their prolific run of form in what is another defining test for what is currently Irish rugby's most potent province.
Cardiff Blues - R Patchell; A Cuthbert, R Lee-Lo, G Evans, T James; J Evans, L Williams; G Jenkins (capt), E Lewis, T Filise, J Hoeata, L Reed, M Cook, J Turnbull, M Vosawai. Reps: K Dacey, S Hobbs, C Mitchell, J Down, C Dolan, T Knoyle, G Smith, D Fish.
Connacht -T O'Halloran; D Leader, B Aki, C Ronaldson, M Healy; J Carty, I Porter; R Loughney, D Heffernan, R Ah You, Q Roux, A Muldowney, J Muldoon capt, J Connolly, E McKeon. Reps: J Harris-Wright, C O'Donnell, F Bealham, G Naoupu, S O'Brien, K Marmion, P Rob, R Parata.
Ref - A Brace (IRFU)
Cardiff v Connacht, Live, TG4/BBC Wales, 7.05