Lam urges injury-struck Connacht to give it one big push before autumn break
By Linley Mackenzie
On the back of another "gut wrenching" loss, Connacht must now regroup to host title-seeking Glasgow Warriors at the Galway Sportsground on Saturday (5pm).
As always Connacht will have parked that Leinster disappointment and will be reharnassing their emotion and energy to try to deny a Scottish outfit which has undergone a resurgence since Gregor Townsend took over the two seasons ago. But Connacht's task has been made all the more difficult by continuing injuries and the departure of utility back James So'oialo for personal reasons.
The November break for the autumn internationals cannot come soon enough for coach Pat Lam, who this week lost Andrew Browne (calf tear) and most likely Aaron Conneelly (ankle in training) from the back row. Still standing are just two, Jake Heenan who is carrying a huge load as openside flanker, and George Naoupu who is enjoying his leadership role in the back row. John Muldoon and Eoin McKeon are expected back in a few weeks which means Lam will transfer either Ali Muldowney or Mick Kearney, who has yet to make a competitive start this season, from second row duties to the blindside this weekend.
The backs have also been hit. Danie Poolman is struggling with hamstring and did not take part in full training earlier in the week, while Robbie Henshaw is unavailable due to Ireland squad commitments. And with James So'oialo having returned to New Zealand, Lam is on the look-out for a replacement back, taking into consideration availability and financial restraints.
"A tough week", says Lam, and also a frustrating one after defeat to Leinster in the final three minutes at the RDS.
"For three weeks in a row we have been putting in body and soul, and certainly it was tough for the whole team to take losing in the last three minutes. It was a massive effort with a game plan that was built around defence and we so nearly pulled it off and made history at the RDS. Now we have to wait for another year," he says.
"There is no doubt we want to win every game but, as I said to the boys this week, we are getting better through the process we go through every week."
With the injury list almost at crisis point, Lam is urging his players to make one last effort before the international break, and it will need to be a big one to overcome a side that until last week was leading the Pro 12 table.
"For the last three games we have raised the bar. We backed up the Saracens game and put the most points on Zebre, and we went to the RDS and gave our all. Now with key injuries and with no more back row players, we are asking the boys to do it again."
Lam had already arrived in Galway last season when Glasgow came strutting their stuff with a convincing 24-3 victory, and lost by just two points to Leinster in the semi-final play-off.
"They went close last year and they arrive here with a lot of talent. They are one of the best defensive outfits in the competition and will punish any errors. It is no fluke they were on top of the league table."
Connacht will take some heart from Munster's victory over the Scots last weekend, but as a result the Sportsground is preparing itself for a backlash from the Scots.
" Munster was a great win and we are a different team, but the one thing we take away from their win is belief that Glasgow can be beaten."
Last weekend Connacht's defensive game plan nearly pulled off a victory against one of the most attacking sides in the league. Now up against a similarly dominant Glasgow, Lam will tweak his systems accordingly.
Discipline will also be on the agenda, although Lam understandably was frustrated by a couple of calls last weekend which saw both Kieron Marmion and replacement prop Ronan Loughney yellow-carded in the final minutes - the latter being a touch judge call.
"Technically Loughney was half a foot offside which, as a prop, would have no effect on the game. The referee didn't see it, but the touch judge called it - harsh. We had two touch judge calls which was frustrating; Leinster had none," says Lam.
Connacht had led the fixture from the start, thanks to two Dan Parks penalties inspired by some superb work at the breakdown. Ian Madigan replied with a ninth-minute effort but a 12th-minute try from Marmion gave Connacht a 13 - 3 lead. Craig Ronaldson had provided the platform, charging down Madison's attempted clearance, and although Connacht fumbled a real opportunity from the ensuing five metre scrum, Marmion took advantage when Leinster failed to control the ball from a scrum under pressure.
With Connacht shutting down Leinster's attack, the hosts were forced to rely on Madigan's goal kicking, closing the gap to 13 - 9 at the break. With both kickers missing opportunities, it remained that way until the 77th minute when referee David Wilkinson gave the penalty try against 13-man Connacht who could not hold out against a newly-dominant Leinster scrum. The 16-13 result and a losing bonus point for Connacht was of little consolation.
LEINSTER: R Kearney, F McFadden, L Fitzgerald, N Reid, D Kearney; I Madigan, E Reddan; J McGrath, S Cronin, M Bent; D Toner, Q Roux; K McLaughlin, S Jennings, J Heaslip. Replacements: M McCarthy for Roux (46); M Moore for Bent (55); R Ruddock for McLaughlin (55); Z Kirchner for R Kearney (71); J Gopperth for Reid (71); I Boss for Reddan (71).
CONNACHT: G Duffy; T O’Halloran, R Henshaw, C Ronaldson, M Healy; D Parks, K Marmion; B Wilkinson, S Henry, R Ah You; M Swift, C Clarke; M Fifita, K Heenan, G Naoupu. Replacements: D Heffernan for Henry (HT); A Muldowney for Swift (51); JP Cooney for Wilkinson (61); R Loughney for Ah You (61); A Browne for Fifita (63); R Ah You for Naoupu (72); P O’Donohue for Browne (75).
Referee: D Wilkinson (IRFU).