Tuesday 28 January 2020

'Get the Fields of Athenry going, pack it to the rafters, get everyone going' - Pat Lam's Champions Cup rally call

Connacht head coach Pat Lam during a press conference at the Sportsground in Galway
Connacht head coach Pat Lam during a press conference at the Sportsground in Galway

Ruaidhri O'Connor in Galway

Joe Schmidt has encouraged Connacht’s players that they have a real opportunity to stake an Ireland claim by performing in the Champions Cup.

Pat Lam has revealed that the national coach passed on the message this week as the Guinness Pro12 champions prepare to welcome Toulouse to Galway on Saturday.

Lam is dealing with a lengthy injury list that includes first-choice players like Tom McCartney, Denis Buckley and Matt Healy who have all been ruled out until late November, but he hopes to welcome Sean O’Brien, Quinn Roux, Kieran Marmion, Peter Robb, Eoin Griffin and Rory Parata back this week.

Initial signs are that chest injury Eoin McKeon suffered against Ulster is not as bad as first feared.

This is the western province’s first time to secure a place at European rugby’s top table on merit and Lam believes that remaining in, and competing for, the Champions Cup is crucial for the province’s future growth and capacity to retain and attract top players.

“Last year’s work was about being here. But now that we are here this is the type of rugby that Connacht Rugby needs to play,” he said.

“I know in the past people always talked, players would ask: ‘should I go to Connacht Rugby, I want to be playing Champions Cup rugby’. That was the reason some guys left, they want to be playing in the top echelons.

“But our whole vision is that Grassroots to Green Shirts. It’s about providing the pathway for guys to step up.

“I was talking to Joe Schmidt during the week in his weekly call. He was encouraging that this is an opportunity for guys now, to get on the big stage and play against guys who in the blue jersey of France.

“I know there is a buzz now, and we are thoroughly deserving to be there.”

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Connacht have increased their capacity to 8,000 for Saturday’s opener and are hopeful of selling out the Sportsground.

And Lam wants the home fans to give the four-times European champions a welcome they’ll remember.

“We need to show that not only have we qualified for this on merit but that we can perform,” he said.

“In that regard, it is a rally call to our fans. I want Toulouse, I want everyone coming here to experience the atmosphere.

“Friday nights haven’t been great, especially for the other parts of our province, Sligo, Leitrim, Roscommon and Mayo.

“But if we can generate (an atmosphere), get the Fields of Athenry going, pack it to the rafters, get everyone going, get everyone in here it will be fantastic.

“All I can guarantee is that we will be giving it everything on Saturday. It is so vital at the start of the competition, if we can get four or five points at the start of the competition it’s a massive boost. And then the momentum will go from there.”

Toulouse are the one side who shouldn’t take Connacht lightly after suffering a surprise home defeat to Saturday’s opponents in Lam’s first season in charge.

“A lot of that (surprise factor) is gone since we beat them three years ago,” Lam said.

“I have a few guys I coached in that team and I remember after that game, Joe Tekori and Census Johnson saying to the guys I tried to tell them because they knew my sort of style. But now unfortunately they know.

“The following week we had a pretty big sickness going through the squad and we got hammered. Just talking to them three years ago and even now they are looking forward to coming here.

“There is no doubt the element of surprise is gone. They saw what we did last year, but for us we are extremely excited to be here and to play at this level.”

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