'The worst thing I can do is insulate them' - Lam
Lam leans on his own playing experience as Connacht embrace final feeling
Published 25/05/2016 | 02:30
When the Connacht bus pulls out of the Sportsground tomorrow and departs for Knock Airport, most of those on board will be heading into the unknown.
New Zealand imports Bundee Aki and Tom McCartney have experienced senior finals before, while Robbie Henshaw has tasted all a World Cup quarter-final can offer, but for most of them this is new territory.
On Saturday, they come up against a Leinster team full of players who have sampled the big occasion, for whom the Guinness Pro12 show-piece is nothing new.
This is where Lam's own experience kicks in. He revelled in the big occasion during a playing career that saw him taste success on the biggest stage.
He knows exactly what his young players are going through as they prepare for this weekend and is fully aware of the pitfalls that they can fall into.
"We've kept it as normal as possible," he said of the preparations. "Probably the biggest learning I've ever had, it's one that was massive for me as a young player, was Rugby World Cup 1991 with Samoa.
"I remember we beat Wales and just lost to Australia and beat Argentina. That whole week is clear in mind: we had no one at training, we could go anywhere without being interrupted, we stayed in a three-star hotel. Everything was low-profile and we went about our business.
"Then we qualified for the quarter-finals and we went to Scotland. Everything changed. Media, all sorts of activities. It was an unbelievably crazy week.
"We had families in hotels, more gear, we were staying in five-star hotels, the boys had buffet food. It was a complete change.
"Scotland in the meantime, with Ian McGeechan - he (later) told me exactly what they did - they got themselves into Test match mode, no interruptions, and they came out and blitzed us in the quarter-final.
"It was a massive learning curve for me as I went on to captain teams."
Lam would take those experiences and apply them later in his playing career as he claimed a Premiership title with Newcastle and a Heineken Cup with Northampton.
While he, as always, is remaining focused on his team's "processes", he wants his players to embrace the final feeling.
"The worst thing you can do is insulate them," he said. "It's being able to say 'this (the final) is over here and it's great, but this is what we do'. That's the most important thing and we've been doing that all year.
"When we get success. . . when we beat Munster away, part of that post-match review was going back to ask 'how did we do that?'.
"I keep saying the only competitive sustainable advantage (we have) is the ability to learn faster than the opposition. That's what we're based around."
Lam was able to deliver a positive injury bulletin yesterday after everyone came through the win over Glasgow Warriors unscathed, while Danie Poolman comes back into contention.
Lam is unlikely to make any sweeping changes to his side this week, although Andrew Browne's presence at the media briefing could indicate a freshening up in the tight five.
Aki's load will be managed this week as he continues to play with the knee problem, but the centre is expected to line up opposite Ben Te'o at Murrayfield.
Aki won successive Super Rugby titles with the Chiefs, while former rugby league star Te'o tasted NRL glory with the South Sydney Rabbitohs. The difference between the two squads is that everywhere Te'o turns at Leinster he'll see a an international with an impressive collection of medals. Not so much at Connacht.
So, when the eastern province delivered a performance of real Test-match intensity on Friday night, they laid down the gauntlet.
Ulster couldn't come close to living with them, so why can Connacht?
"That's the challenge," Lam said. "That's the thing that's exciting. We were really impressed with what Leinster did; the whole country was and everybody is talking about it.
"That's what makes it exciting because it's like 'right, that's what the level is, that's were we need to be at'.
"If we don't have an understanding of how we need to play, and if we don't bring the right preparation to it, we'll get beaten off the park, but I think that's what we're excited by.
"Without a doubt, it is the ultimate final for us. If you pick one team that we'd say would be the toughest challenge, it's Leinster. Because we know them so well, and where a lot of those player are, a lot of our players aspire to be.
"They set the benchmark. If you want to test yourself against the best - and we talk to the boys constantly about their rugby education and playing at that highest level - here's a chance to test ourselves as a team against one of the best in Europe over the last 10 years."
For all that Leinster are the bookies' favourites, there is a steely confidence about Connacht that is drawn from their record this season.
And, despite the one-off nature of the occasion, Lam will not be changing his side's approach.
"We know on the weekend we want to keep the ball. We've got to handle the pressure or we'll lose the ball," he said. "It's what you do with the ball is most important; that and how you react.
"It is that whole thing about reacting under pressure and dealing with distractions. It's how you react.
"When I talk about channelling everything into the game, that's what I mean.
"A guy can either stay on the ground or quickly get up off the ground and move two metres in a second. That can make a big difference.
"What determines how he gets off the ground is how much Connacht means to them, how much the team means to them."
As if to re-inforce that sense of team-work and togetherness, Lam will bring the entire Connacht squad to Edinburgh.
He used 46 players this season, but only 23 will cross the white line at Murrayfield.
"This weekend is a celebration for what we have done as a group," he said. "The guys who get the jersey for this week, they're representing the other players in that position. For example, if it's Tom (McCartney), he's representing all the other hookers.
"It's been a combined effort and they're just the lucky ones who get to wear the jersey this weekend."
It is set to be a special occasion for the western province and Lam is determined that they make the most of it.