Let’s do it again Connacht
‘We have to take it to another level. We know it is a tougher challenge coming.’
Pat Lam - gearing everything towards a repeat performance.
They do not come much bigger than this. The aristocrats of French rugby Toulouse take on Connacht in the Heineken Cup on Saturday in the Galway Sportsground (6pm) on a mission of revenge.
It is a most unusual motivation for the four-times European champions. Only a few days ago they would have expected to roll up College Road confident of grabbing a comfortable victory - just like they did two years ago - to put them in charge of pool three. But all that changed on Sunday when Connacht staged Europe’s biggest giant-killing, stunning France’s most successful club with a 16 - 14 victory on their own back yard. With little time to brood, the memory will be fresh in their minds - hurt, anger, and humiliation.
It is both exciting and daunting as Connacht’s Pat Lam prepares his troops for the expected backlash and Guy Noves side comes armed with all the weaponry it can muster. It should make for an explosive occasion for the expected 9,000 plus spectators in College Road to savour.
While Toulouse are mentally wounded, Connacht are physically battered and bruised from Sunday's exertions, which has cost the province Michael Swift for this return leg fixture.
The talismanic lock will be out of action for up to four weeks with a fractured cheek bone, and coach Pat Lam says his experience will be a big loss.
'"It is big blow to our squad. At first we thought it was a bruise, but after a scan, it is a fracture, so it could be three or four weeks.”
Swift is the sole casualty from Sunday’s game, but Lam has options with the return of lock Aly Muldowney.
However training has been curtailed to allow players to fully recover.
“Guys are still pretty sore, understandably after what was probably one of the most physical games for the boys. It’s all about getting the energy back and the priority is to get it back by Saturday night."
Another priority for Connacht is to back up last weekend’s win to ensure it was not a one-off performance in the struggle for consistency, but Lam believes it will not be difficult to keep his players focused.
" The boys are driving a lot of this. The belief from last week, that has been based on the work the boys have done off the field right through the season and the culture and what we have been trying to achieve. It was a big boost to get the win, but we know it is just another step up this week.
"I think everyone is more excited by it, but we know it is not just going to happen and there is a process and work that made it happen for us last week and we need to go through that same process and step it up another level.”
Crucial to Connacht's victory on Sunday was a solid set piece - the work of assistant Dan McFarland - and a hugely committed defensive system.
"The set piece had been good right through the season. Dan McFarland has done a superb job — his attention to detail and his work with the forwards, giving real clarity on what they need to do as a unit has been superb and it’s been a reason why we are seeing so many other opportunities that we haven’t taken. That is one area where we are really strong and that is pleasing,” says Lam.
"The defensive effort that the boys pulled out of that last play, the two minutes before the final whistle, was probably the best defensive effort I have every been involved in, playing or coaching, because not only was the heart there, but the boys stayed in system and stayed disciplined and that epitomised the whole performance really and epitomised what we are trying to achieve."
Connacht are in no position to get carried away with ideas of a quarter-final, and, as always, Pat Lam is taking one game at a time.
“We are into the fourth game of this competition in the pool and everything is geared towards getting this performance right on the weekend.
"They are going to be a pretty angry team of seasoned internationals. We lose Michael Swift who is a big legend for us and they can replace international with international. We have to take it to another level in our preparations to make sure we can deal with it. We know it is a tougher challenge coming."