Lam demands a redeeming display to sign off Pro 12 season

Long-serving Ronan Loughney  and Pat Lam after  the final Guinness Pro12 game at the Sportsground. Loughney, who has played for Connacht for 15 years, was one of several players farewelled on the night. 			Photo: Mike Shaughnessy

Long-serving Ronan Loughney and Pat Lam after the final Guinness Pro12 game at the Sportsground. Loughney, who has played for Connacht for 15 years, was one of several players farewelled on the night. Photo: Mike Shaughnessy

Connacht's disappointing Guinness Pro 12 season comes to an end on Saturday with coach Pat Lam urging his players to redeem themselves after their worst performance in three years.

Their 12th defeat this season came at the hands of title-chasing Scarlets last Saturday evening in the final fixture at the Sportsground, and Lam says this week it is all about producing a suitable response worthy of title-holders in this final championship fixture.

Last season Connacht produced a defiant and dominant display to grab their first win away to Munster in 29 years which put them on top of the table - four clear of Leinster. Much has changed - seven key starters that day have moved on or are unavailable - and Connacht trail Munster by 37 points on the table. The title has been relinquished, but with a Champions Cup play-off still to come, there is a seasonal goal still at stake, and Lam says his squad has no option but to improve.

"We have to redeem ourselves and we can only do that if prepare well individually and collectively. There will be response. It doesn't mean we will win, but we will be better and that shouldn't too hard because of the standards we have set ourselves before," he says.

Expect a host of changes in the starting line-up with some of their front-liners back this week as Connacht prepare for that Champions Cup play-off fixture in England - at present the likely opponents are Harlequins, Gloucester and Northampton.

"There will be changes in the team. Those guys had a chance and now it's other guys who get an opportunity to show up and redeem themselves as a whole group.

"Derby games take care of themselves, and it doesn't really matter where it sits in the Pro 12 table," says Lam. "That aside, it's Connacht v Munster, and we are going down to a Munster team that is humming nicely and having a tremendous season.

"It's a great challenge to try to find some form. There will be opportunities for players. If they can perform under pressure, it gives them a great shot for the play-off."

Lam says Munster reflect the principles on which Connacht pride themselves.

"It is a tough time, we've only beaten Munster once in 29 years, so it just emphasises the difficulty of going there - tougher than last year because of where they are now. Without doubt we are not in the form we want to be, and they are preparing to win the Pro 12 and players are working hard to make the team. I know what they are going through. It's a different dynamic for us - ours is fighting for places to get to Champions Cup rugby next year - still the same determination, but just a different prize."

Lam described last weekend's 8-30 loss to Scarlets as "horrific", particularly in the opening half when they conceded four tries to Wayne Pivac's Welsh side.

"We could have won that game, we can win this game [against Munster], and if we have that bad game in the play-off, it doesn't matter what has happened in these two games because of where we put ourselves. Ultimately this whole season rides on the play-off game, winning that, and getting into the final and winning that."

'We weren't at the races in the first half [against Scarlets]," said Lam. "You can see the rustiness, our defending wasn't great in the first half, but to be fair we knew it was a risk, but we had to take it. We had to get these guys on the field because we are running out of numbers for the play-offs."

In contrast, the Welsh outfit, packed with internationals, posted four of their five tries in the opening half to secure the bonus point, while the much-changed Connacht side, with nothing at stake, struggled to cope with pace and execution of their visitors.

The visitors opened with an all-too-easy try from fullback Johnny McNicholl which Rhys Patcehll converted - the only one of the evening in the difficult wind conditions. Connacht replied with a Marnitz Boschoff penalty after 10 minutes, having struck a beauty to the corner to set up field position. But within minutes the visitors had bagged try number two - a solid scrum providing the platform as their backs continued to punch holes in the porous cover. Eventually left wing Steffan Evans crossed with Patchell's conversion drifting wide with the wind.

Boschoff's touch kicking ensured Connacht enjoyed their share of territorial control, while Jake Heenan and Sean O'Brien were tigerish at the breakdown, but the home side was unable to add to the score when the South African's second penalty attempt sailed wide after he was tackled high.

Scarlets revelled in the space they were able to create, with McNicholl supplying Evans for the third try. Liam Williams bagged the next despite the hint of a forward pass, and Connacht found themselves behind by 22-3 at the break.

John Muldoon and Quinn Roux certainly boosted Connacht on their second-half introduction, and showing patience when camped on their opponents' line, Connacht were eventually rewarded for keeping the ball in hand with Farrell sending Ronaldson through.

But that was as good as it got - Patchell added a 65th minute penalty, and they finished with a Van der Mervwe try from a simple blindside move off the scrum where Connacht's defence was again found lacking.

Connacht v Sarlets: T O'Halloran, D Leader, T Farrell, E Griffin, C Kelleher, M Boschoff, C Blade, F Bealham, G Heffernan, D Robertson-McCoy, J Cannon, A Browne (cpt ), S O'Brien, J Heenan, E Masterson. Replacements, C Ronaldson for Griffin ( 22m ), Buckley for Robertson-McCoy (HT ), Q Roux for Cannon and J Muldoon for Masterson (46m ), S Delahunt for Heffernan and JP Cooney for Bealham (67m ), D Poolman for O'Halloran (71m ).

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