Saturday 17 February 2018

Connacht determined to end hoodoo and extend Lam's reign

'Lam is confident his men can bounce back from demoralising defeats to Scarlets and Munster.' Photo: Sportsfile
'Lam is confident his men can bounce back from demoralising defeats to Scarlets and Munster.' Photo: Sportsfile Sportsdesk

Connacht, with Warren Gatland in charge, produced a stunning 20-15 win over Northampton Saints in 1997 but since then have only managed to win once on English soil, writes John Fallon.

A win over Worcester Warriors in December 2009 is the only other time Connacht have returned from 21 competitive trips to England with a win.

Indeed, they have lost on each of their last ten trips to England, some of them hard-luck stories, while others like the 64-6 hammering by Saracens in 2014 were torturous affairs.

Lam, who departs soon to take charge of relegated Bristol in the English Championship, knows it will take something special to create a Champions Cup play-off shock at Northampton Saints, who he skippered to Heineken Cup glory in 2000.

And while this has been a dismal season after the high of the Guinness Pro12 triumph a year ago, Lam has always been capable of turning out a team to perform against the odds.

And it will take something special to thwart a side who can call on the likes of Lions George North and Courtney Lawes and French No 8 Louis Picamoles, while skipper Dylan Hartley will be out to prove his worth to Lions coach Warren Gatland, given the injury to Welsh hooker Ken Owens.

Lam is confident his men can bounce back from demoralising defeats to Scarlets and Munster.

"The guys have played in many big games like that," he said.

"Guys love playing in those sort of atmospheres. But it means nothing if we don't get the attitude right, if we don't answer the questions that have been asked of us all."

Lam is boosted by the earlier than expected return of Ireland second-row Ultan Dillane and winger Matt Healy; both start on the bench. Lam has made seven changes to the side hammered 50-14 by Munster but the blow of Bundee Aki's suspension becomes all the more apparent with the switching of Danie Poolman, usually a winger, to the centre to partner Craig Ronaldson.

The availability of Niyi Adeolokun is a boost, while hooker Dave Heffernan will be looking for a huge performance against the controversial Hartley, having been called into the Ireland squad for the summer tour.

Ulster-bound scrum-half John Cooney, also called up to the Irish squad for the first time this week, is on a bench.

The replacements also includes another specialist No 9 in Caolin Blade, with former South African out-half Marnitz Boshoff left out - and not listed among the unavailable players.

Lam has produced a few miracles in his four years in Connacht and it would be a fitting end to book a Champions Cup play-off final at the Sportsground next Friday.

Verdict: Northampton

Northampton Saints - A Tuala; B Foden, N Tuitavake, L Burrell, G North; H Mallinder, N Groom; A Waller, D Hartley, K Brookes; C Lawes, C Day; J Gibson, T Harrison, L Picamoles. Reps: M Haywood, C Ma'afu, G Denman, A Ratuniyarawa, T Wood, L Dickson, S Olver, R Hutchinson.
Connacht - T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun, D Poolman, C Ronaldson, C Kelleher; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, D Heffernan, F Bealham; Q Roux, A Browne; S O'Brien, J Heenan, J Muldoon. Reps: S Delahunt, JP Cooney, C Carey, U Dillane, N Dawai, C Blade, J Cooney, M Healy.
Ref - M Raynal (France).
Northampton Saints v Connacht,
Live, TG4, 4.0

Irish Independent

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