Connacht return to the Galway Sportsground for the first time in six weeks to face Ireland’s last remaining Heineken Cup team, Munster, on Saturday.
Connacht’s record over Munster in the recent past has been one of near victories, and coach Pat Lam is expecting the toughest examination as Rob Penny’s side prepare for next week’s big European clash with Toulon.
“It’s a big game for both of us and we are both coming off the back of disappointing losses last weekend, but being back home in front of the fans again is massive.
“There is a real buzz being back at home, and I know the main and Clann stands are selling fast, but we are expecting another backlash - no doubt they will be having a tough week this week and they will be taking it out on us.”
After last weekend disappointing 58-12 loss to Ulster, Lam’s squad is nursing bumps and bruises with prop Rodney Ah You the only doubt having suffered a badly bruised eye. Prop Nathan White remains an unlikely starter, but Willie Faloon, who injured his hamstring in a training session ahead of the Ulster fixture, is expected to be ready for selection.
Lam believes the team has come a long way since the start of the season, and even in their defeat to Ulster, the statistics in most areas of play matched those of Mark Anscombe’s side.
Most glaring was the lack of penalties Ulster conceded - the first occasion Lam believes a team has not conceded one penalty to their opponents, while Connacht also had no attacking line-outs.
“We dropped the ball and they scored a 150m try very simply. We had no attacking line-outs, made 18 errors or turnovers, and we were punished by quality players.
Despite this, Lam said his side had Ulster under pressure, but failed to capitalise on opportunities.
“We had numerous opportunities to score, but we blew them. Our execution, making the most of spaces available, let us down and then we turned over ball. Ee didnt take them, and turned over ball.”
And Lam says Munster, though a different type of team, will be no easier. “As the only Irish team still alive in Europe, they are the best here. They possess more than 20 internationals who have played at higher levels more consistenly, so that is a challenge for us. “We know what is coming, but we have to ensure we get our game right in terms of individuals executing well. “We have Munster, Cardiff and the Ospreys to play and we are still looking to finish as high as we can - seventh is unchartered waters.”
This week Connacht Rugby confirmed contract extensions for five young players who have come through Nigel Carolan’s Academy, Darragh Leader, Conor Finn and Finlay Bealham who have been promoted to the senior squad on one-year deals, while last year’s graduates Dave Heffernan and Danny Qualter have also signed a 12-month extension.