Saturday 17 February 2018

Lam's boys capable of Saints upset

Victory would set up huge send-off date in Galway for coach and players

Pat Lam will be hoping that Sean Cronin, pictured here contesting a lineout against Scarlets, scales the heights again tomorrow. Picture: Sportsfile
Pat Lam will be hoping that Sean Cronin, pictured here contesting a lineout against Scarlets, scales the heights again tomorrow. Picture: Sportsfile

Johnny O'Connor

The carrot of all carrots awaits Connacht if they can pull of a shock victory at Franklin's Gardens this weekend. But the performance levels will be upped and I'm confident they can go to Northampton and win.

Gloucester and Northampton are pretty closely matched teams, so it's hard to know whether this is a better draw for Connacht. But it doesn't matter because outside of Wasps and Saracens the English teams are all fairly similar.

But of course back-to-back Champions Cup winners Saracens are just miles ahead of the rest. They are utterly dominant, and their brilliant final victory over Clermont solidified their reputation after the thumping of Munster in the final four this year.

I haven't seen a team perform so well under to pressure; they are playing at such a high level that if you were fan I'm sure you'd never feel on edge during their matches. They were on the back foot in the third quarter against Clermont, but try as they might, the French Top 14 giants couldn't find a way.

Northampton are a similarly gritty English outfit, but with big physical players, and a club packed full of tradition. I have played over there in Franklin's Gardens a few times and they generate an incredible atmosphere in their games. It's a fantastic stadium to play in - one of those great rugby arenas, purpose-built, with a great surface, and the fans are close to the pitch and very passionate.

Connacht don't have much form at the moment. You just have to have faith within the players that they can put together a performance, and get over the line and win.

Connacht can't afford to go over there and not be diligent in their attack or defence, or phase play. They must be on it 100 per cent to win that game. Wouldn't it be absolutely brilliant to send Pat Lam and Conor McPhillips off at the Sportsground, with a cup final game, to get Champions Cup rugby back to Galway?

That's in the back of the players' minds. Last year will always be cherished as a great experience for those involved, and for us from the outside. But at the same time Champions Cup rugby is important to the province.

Calibre If they don't get it it's not the end of the world but you do get better when you play against higher calibre of opposition, and that's why it's so important that Connacht get this game across the line.

At the moment the Connacht form is not bad - it's not good - but it's certainly not far off. Connacht have to make sure they are as close to their best as possible when they go to Northampton if they have realistic hopes of winning this game.

Rather than thinking about what happened in Gloucester and in previous knockout games, it's not going to matter tomorrow.

Northampton obviously have some big-name players in their team. Louis Picamoles is an incredible ball-carrier. He's going to get his team into the game at certain stages. There is no doubt about his ability on the ball. A key part to stopping Northampton play is stopping Picamoles from playing. 

Courtney Lawes gets around, he is all business and gets the job done for his team - he is very attritional and carries well. JJ Hanrahan's injury absence is a loss in the back-line, but they have plenty of big-name players that can hurt you. 

And with Dylan Hartley you are just hoping that his ill-discipline costs them. But Northampton are a good club, they probably didn't finish where they wanted this year with a bit of transition in the club. They are actually fairly similar to Connacht in that sense. 

There is always a chance that Northampton could underestimate Connacht, but Picamoles was involved when Toulouse got beaten by Connacht before, and I'm sure Northampton will go in with a very professional approach.

If Connacht can win this, there would be a huge turn-out for the game, for Pat, Conor and the other guys moving on, it would be huge. It would be like winning a trophy last year and that's what's on offer. 

Although there is no silverware at the end, it's still just as important. If Connacht can bring this back to Galway, it would be an incredible atmosphere with the support they have.

Irish Independent

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