Depleted Connacht shouldn't fear playing anyone, insists Lam
Pat Lam says Connacht should not fear any team if they continue to develop and learn how to win games as they've shown this year.
Having come so close to earning Champions Cup rugby last season, Lam admits that there was huge disappointment among his squad about having not achieved their goals, but it has only increased their determination to succeed this time round.
Connacht will be hoping to earn a spot in the Challenge Cup quarter-final with two games to spare with an away win in Newcastle tomorrow (3.0), but severe injury problems in the province means Lam has been unable to fill his bench.
Twenty of Connacht's original European squad miss tomorrow's game because of injury and as a result they have only named 22 players for the match, but Lam insists there is huge belief in the squad that they can still succeed.
The ultimate goal for the season is to finish sixth place or higher in the Pro12 or to win the Challenge Cup, either of which will guarantee Champions Cup rugby next season. A win at Kingston Park would be a good step forward.
"There is no doubt we are disappointed from last year, in the sense that we had a good opportunity. But at the end of the day it was what it is. We have to take the lessons from that," said Lam.
"The most important thing is that we know if we keep going the way we are, improving individually and collectively, that we have a good chance of being there next year.
"We have got to make sure when we get there that we have a good squad that can play as we continue to grow and build as a team. I just don't want to get there and make up the numbers, we want to get there and do well in it too.
"If we focus on how to win games and how to close out games - this season we have got better at it. You do that by reviewing everything well: what we can do better?; what we can do to improve?
"Then we shouldn't really fear playing any team going forward, but that's a continual work in progress. But that's certainly what we try to do every week."
Connacht already hold a seven-point lead over Newcastle and Brive in Pool 1 ahead of this game, but Lam has been forced to make seven changes to the side that earned victory in Galway last week, in the first of their back-to-back meeting with the Falcons.
There are first starts for out-half Shane O'Leary and loose-head Shane O'Donnell, both academy players, while academy tight-head Saba Meunargia is likely to feature after being called into Lam's squad earlier for the injured Denis Buckley. Lock Danny Qualter also makes his first start of the season.
But even in such an injury crisis there is still some good news as Craig Ronaldson, Eoghan Masterson and Andrew Browne make their return from injury and start tomorrow.
"Our RTP is return to perform, not return to play. So we don't use a lack of game as an excuse not to be able to perform," said the coach.
"These back-to-back games are always interesting. They're like Test matches. We know that we did things well and there is things we didn't do well. There is no surprise element and we go into their back yard now.
"It's a really good mental test. This is the beauty of the European back-to-back weekends, it's what we can do better this week. "
Newcastle Falcons - S Hammersley; A Tait, B Agulla, C Harris, M Watson; C Willis, S Takulua; A Rogers, S Lawson, J Welsh; M Botha, S Robinson; W Welch (capt), D Temm, A Hogg. Reps: G McGuigan, R Vickers, T Vea, C Green, R Mayhew, M Young, T Catterick, J Pablo Socino
Connacht - D Poolman; R Parata, P Robb, C Ronaldson, N Adeolokun; S O'Leary, C Blade; C O'Donnell, J Harris-Wright, R Ah You; D Qualter, A Browne; S O'Brien, E Masterson, G Naoupu (capt). Reps: S Delahunt, F Bealham, S Meunargia, A Muldowney, D Heffernan, I Porter, J Carty.
Ref - B Whitehouse (Wales)