The host of RubgaÍ Beo on TG4 argues that Lam's recognition of identity is a crucial part of the jigsaw
As the business end of the season approaches, four proud provinces are (mathematically) still in contention for silverware, though three of these teams looked on with envy last weekend as Europe took centre stage.
Connacht’s unforgettable quarter-final clash with Grenoble has no doubt left them heartbroken, as their stunning attacking performance put them in a position to emerge victorious, but perhaps lack of experience and control at crucial stages cost them the win.
They will rue lost chances, but must be commended, as they have been the one province on an upward trajectory in both competitions all season long. In that context, it should be remembered that the IRFU considered axing Connacht in 2003, were it not for the crowd of over 1,000 people that marched on in support of the “fourth province”. At last, they stand an equal entity in the four leaf clover of rugby.
Thirteen years on from that critical demonstration of support and solidarity, Connacht have made themselves known on and off the playing field. The men of the West have a unique identity, which former All-Black Pat Lam instantly recognised and his five year vision of making Connacht the best province in Ireland, is certainly not far off being brought to fruition. Lam is under no illusion that they have reached this summit, but the solid foundations and structures that he has put in place has resulted in the club’s most successful season to-date.
Pat Lam’s immersion in the culture of Connacht is as important as the skill-set and playing systems that he and his backroom team have implemented. Subtle nuances like greeting each other “as Gaeilge” and insistence that players carry a rugby ball with them wherever they go, have helped in rejuvenating the whole organisation, as Connacht - the branch and the team - now welcome every new challenge with open arms.
Image: A logo in the Connacht gym displaying a message in Irish which, loosely translated, means "rise like eagles". Connacht Rugby
And there have been challenges. When it comes to investment, Connacht still play second fiddle to the other three provinces, but they haven’t taken it lying down. Their “Grassroots to Green shirts” campaign a few years ago was an initiative to entice supporters to donate money to back-up their IRFU funding.
Since then, IRFU funding and the resources they have been given has increased and the club are reaping the rewards, but that slogan was much more than a fundraising banner, as Connacht have illustrated. The development of homegrown players rising through the ranks is perhaps what sets this group apart. To witness five of Connacht’s own don the green of Ireland this season was a special moment. They are producing quality, indigenous players and their underage system rivals the best of them.
With each passing week their injury list has grown and their squad depth has been tested. We watch on as unknown academy players step in; our minds waver, surely it’s a step too far? But these young, confident, local players have proven us wrong, breaking records all season long. Nigel Carolan, Connacht’s academy manager since 2004, has insured that when faced with the task, his players are poised and ready.
Last weekend again, players were forced to play out of position and they adapted seamlessly. Lam’s belief in every one of them, in their core skills and decision-making, has meant that no player is bigger than the team; their role is clear and their running game plan is exciting.
Image: ©INPHO/James Crombie
Connacht players know what it means to represent their province; they play fearlessly for the jersey, naturally mistakes have been made along the way, but Lam is willing to accept these shortcomings if the attitude is right and the players are confident that their efforts will not be overlooked.
It’s testament to the work that has been done in Connacht, that they are within touching distance of winning their first ever trophy this season. Hunger may be the key factor in pushing them over the line at this crucial time. Their goal was to reach European Champion’s Cup qualification off their own bat and that is all but secure, so as they draw ever closer to silverware, their ambition has grown and the dream is still alive.
Image: ©INPHO/James Crombie
This weekend they welcome Anthony Foley’s men to the Sportsground, a team in desperate need of a win. This is crunch time for Munster. It is difficult to visualise Europe’s top tier competition without the famous Red Army. That narrow loss to Leinster, followed by last weekend on the sidelines as Connacht fought in Europe, will surely see Munster head to the Sportsground with all guns blazing.
On paper, all logic points towards a Munster win, as once again Connacht’s wounded recruits are called to battle against a fresher, more experienced Munster team. But Pat Lam’s never ending faith in their progressive approach will not teeter.
Attractive, free flowing rugby has been a winner for them all season long; they’re not going to change now. Having lost at home only once since the start of the season, Connacht have demonstrated that they are comfortable in their own skin and their hard work and grit, combined with skillful ball work, has proven a winning combination.
The Sportsground was never an easy place to go for travelling teams with unpredictable conditions and a close, intimidating welcome, but add to that the electric atmosphere of the packed out grounds this season and it is a terrifying fortress. We know how Munster perform when the chips are down, but momentum, expectation and a taste of success might sway a win the Westerners' way.