The 16-game marathon begins for Connacht tomorrow evening when they host Zebre at the Galway Sportsground (7.30pm ).
This unprecedented lengthy succession of games, owing to the World Cup, will test Connacht’s squad to the limit. It is a hefty schedule of 10 Pro 12 fixtures, that include the Christmas and New Year interprovincials, and six European matches, including the trip to Siberia to face Enisei and back-to-back games with Newcastle. It comes to a brief respite at the end of January.
“We have spoken about it,” says coach Pat Lam. “Exciting times. At the end of the day, we all play the game to play the game, and there are games now. We know it’s a challenge, but it is one we have to embrace.
“The challenge now is to make every day, every training session, every meeting and everything we do into a winner. There is a big management process around this - to plan, manage rest, give players game time. There is four months now in which we are going to see more of everybody than we will our families, so we have to manage that time.
“We have looked at the four games before Europe, so we now have three home games and one away, so we have looked at those first, and then into two games in Europe, and that is as far as we have gone. Right now it is all about Zebre and getting the win at home.”
Already managing several absences, including Nathan White and Robbie Henshaw on World Cup duty, Lam could well be expected to dip into the Academy as the schedule rolls forward. As a result a group of Academy players have been training with the Pro 12 side in preparation.
“At the start of the year because we knew this schedule was coming up we have looked closely at year three academy and guys we believe can step up. So they have been training with us from day one. Although officially they are Academy, they are training like Pro 12 players, doing all the training both on and off the field, building relationships. The likes of Rory Parata, Peter Robb, Conor McKeon, Sean O’Brien, Saba Meunargia - there is a group of guys ready to go. Then there are guys like Conan O’Donnell who have stepped in to train with us because of niggles in the front row. Their development is on going, but somewhere along the line, if there are injuries, they will step up.”
And this week Connacht have suffered more injury woes with both prop JP Cooney ruled out with a shoulder injury, and wing Fionn Carr.
Carr suffered a low grade calf strain in training yesterday and could be out for two weeks, while Cooney, who came on as a late replacement in Connacht’s win over Cardiff, dislocated his shoulder, ruling him out for four months.
The Garryowen loosehead, who underwent surgery last Friday, was only on the field for the last passage of play when the incident happened.
“When you have Whitey away [Nathan White], Ronan [Loughney], who is not too far from coming back, young Saba [Meunargia] and Jamie Dever, who is out for another five months, losing JP was a big loss,” says Lam.
However Rodney Ah You is available, having recovered from a hamstring which kept him out of action against Cardiff, and Ronan Loughney has also returned to training, but is expected to line out for his club side Galwegians this weekend.
Also back this week are Eoghan Masterson and Ultan Dillane, while Conor Finn is also expected to take part in Ulster Bank League action for Buccaneers.
Connacht have never lost to Zebre and last year recorded their biggest margin of victories, a 43-3 in Galway, followed by a 40-10 in Parma. And it is unlikely Zebre will have any of their Italian internationals back following their exit from the World Cup. Nor will Mils Muliaina be revisiting his former province as he is ruled out with injury.
However Lam says he will not be taking chances with team selection.
“It is about putting the best team for the game, and we have a lot of respect for Zebre. They started off with a big loss and then they regrouped. Scarlets just got home, they ran Dragons close as well, so we have to make sure we win this game.
“The last few years we have won quite comfortably, but we have had to work hard. You realise that by treating them with respect, playing our game, and being disciplined to play our game by not getting loose, we have come home strong, and that formula won’t change.”
Athlone’s Robbie Henshaw was once again a key player for Ireland in the victory over France at the weekend, ensuring top pool spot and a quarter-final with Argentina.
Although Lam, who was in Newcastle, missed the match, he had the match recorded.
“Outstanding. Everyone knows he’s a class player,” says Lam.” Robbie’s defence was the first thing he nailed as a professional. Everyone knows he’s a big defensive player, but he’s worked on his tackling, passing under pressure, and accuracy, but his defence is his go-to.”