Sunday 30 April 2017

Muscle memory can propel Lam's troops to retain place in the elite

"It's about being able to do what you need to do when you need to do it," says Pat Lam, whose disclosed departure has coincided with what seems like a rudderless endgame. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Even now, almost a year on, there remains a vivid sense that Connacht's sweeping success in Edinburgh last May trapped in amber the lives of all who wallowed in that beautiful day.

"I still get people coming up to me," their totemic midfielder Bundee Aki began to relate this week, "and they say, 'What you did last year - what you guys did last year - was an absolute...'

Neither sentence nor sentiment requires completion; the moment itself is amply sufficient.

But life speeds on, roundly ignorant to nostalgic niceties such as street meet and greets; this evening, Leinster return to Galway for the first time since being so comprehensively and thrillingly spanked in last year's Guinness PRO12 final.

They do so with this prize as secondary upon their agenda; instead eyeing a return to the Champions Cup plinth for a record-equalling fourth time; defeat in Galway, as they shuffle their pack ahead of Lyon, will not detain them from sleep.

Less than two hours away, Munster will host Ulster with an equally stoic approach to the outcome as they, too, eye up a European semi-final.

Troubling

A fortnight ago, their Thomond cathedral rocked as Toulouse were downed, a tie only made possible by the fact that Connacht had seized up when seemingly poised to pounce on the fallen French giants in their final pool game.

It has been indicative of a troubling defence of their domestic realm for the westerners; a desperately disappointing campaign which may yet imperil their chances of returning to Europe's elite.

They have been to Siberia before; that was one time too many and they dare not return.

On that same weekend when Munster and Leinster supplanted the men from the west in Irish sporting hearts - how capricious a nation we are! - Connacht were forced to pitch up in Zebre for a league game.

They conspired to lose it on their own April Fools' Day. Out of sight and out of mind.

Almost a year ago to the day, Connacht also lost in Italy (against Treviso) but few had cared nor noticed then either, but for vastly different reasons.

For they had already qualified for the top four play-offs. They will be in a play-off again this May, but this time disguised as the undignified scramble with three others to become low-lying Champions Cup fruit.

Bizarrely, though they occupy one of the two Champions Cup play-off berths - Cardiff are four points behind in the other slot - it would seem far more prudent for Connacht to slide even further down the table.

Were they to remain seventh, they would have to play two games, the first of which would be in France; finish eighth, and they would still have to beat an English side away but at least their play-off final would be in Galway.

It's a daft scenario. To avoid it, they needed to beat Glasgow last month, as they did twice down the stretch last term; this time, Connacht soared for an hour but then slumped dramatically.

Clinging on to a desperate win against a rank Edinburgh side last time out was key; pride and muscle memory may be all that remains now.

"It's about being able to do what you need to do when you need to do it," says Lam, whose disclosed departure has coincided with what seems like a rudderless endgame.

There is excitement at what the incoming Kieran Keane may bring.

But, with a lot of players hesitant about who to speak with regarding their future plans, there has been an ongoing vacuum and, as yet, no word on any key signings.

Lam has, naturally, excused himself from Connacht's future plans as he has enough to occupy his mind at Bristol from the summer; there is a sense of drift about the place and that cannot but filter throughout the organisation.

They need to re-focus and the sight of a resurgent blue jersey may aid that process.

Lam has spoken often this year about how one dropped ball can punish everyone. Connacht can't afford many more as they strive to ensure their history remains part of both the present and immediate future.

Irish Independent

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