The Pat Lam era begins in earnest on Saturday (5pm ) when Connacht Rugby host Zebre in the first Rabodirect Pro 12 fixture of the 2013/2014 season.
And with more than 4,000 season tickets sold already, the new coach and his players can expect to receive a huge welcome for what is expected to be a tricky assignment against the Italian side that is chomping at the bit for a first league win.
Connacht’s continuing improvement during Eric Elwood’s tenure saw more wins and an eighth place finish in the league for a second successive year and now the spotlight is on the New Zealander to see if he can continue where Elwood left off.
There is certainly optimism. Lam has been blessed to have continuity in his management team, particularly assistant and forwards’ coach Dan McFarland and manager Tim Allnutt, while the addition of some astute signings, most notably Craig Clarke, the Chiefs’ Super 15 winning captain of the last two seasons, has certainly boosted the province’s credentials. Clarke is expected to play a leading role in Connacht’s campaign, while the return of the province’s most prolific try scorer from Leinster, Fionn Carr, will add pace to the wing. Add in Craig Ronaldson, one of the Ulster Bank League’s best performers last season, Jake Heenan, the former Junior All Black captain and flanker, talented hooker Sean Henry, and former Exeter lock Ali Muldowney, and Connacht have added to key positions.
Last year’s newcomers Dan Parks, Nathan White, Danie Poolman, and Willie Faloon, are expected to continue making huge contributions, the trio of captains Gavin Duffy, currently injured, Michael Swift, and John Muldoon are talismanic figures for the province, and in young Robbie Henshaw Connacht has at least one contender for the Irish jersey.
Connacht failed to win one of three pre-season fixtures, but Lam insists those results are irrelevant.
“ No one remembers pre-season games, but the key is the learnings you take from it. I was really pleased with the game in France - in beautiful conditions - then we had the wind here and the rain in Newcastle, and for the last couple of weeks there are a lot of things we have tidied up,” he says.
Zebre and Connacht are familiar foes - having met four times last year in the league and Europe - with Connacht narrowly prevailing in the Sportsground fixtures.
“ Yeah, we know they are hanging out, desperate for a win. It’s been a long time for them, so we know it is coming,” says Lam. “ But we cannot worry about them. The focus is on us as a team, making sure we do exactly what we have been working on, that we have clarity in our jobs.
“Of course we want the four points, we want the win, but the real focus is on us playing as a team. If we do that, the chances of getting the four points will increase.”
While Lam has tested 40 players during the pre-season, including all youngsters, Zebre, too, have added players to their squad. Although they have lost their top scorer Daniel Helangahu and Sinoti Sinoti, they have brought in nine players, including Clarke’s former teammate at the Chiefs, scrumhalf Brendon Leonard, and Saracens’ winger Kameli Ratuvou, and as usual they will pose a threat to Connacht.
Out of action for Connacht are the long term injured Dave McSharry and Kyle Tonetti, Gavin Duffy (cheek ), Mata Fifita, Miah Nikora and Dave Nolan, while James So’oialo still awaits a permit. The good news is the return of Danie Poolman who is a likely candidate to join Eoin Griffin in the centre. Despite limited playing time due to his Irish programme, Robbie Henshaw is expected to line out at fullback. Fionn Carr, Tiernan O’Halloran and Matt Healy are in contention for the wing, while Dan Parks can be expected to direct operations behind the scrum. Craig Clarke is likely to receive his first competitive cap for the province. Lam has the choice of Michael Swift and Mick Kearney as Clarke’s partner, while John Muldoon, Eoin McKeon, Willie Faloon, George Naoupu and Andrew Browne, who can play in both second and back rows, will be staking claims in the back row.
Connacht will be looking for a better placed finish again, Lam says it is not the central focus.
“Ideally everyone wants to be higher than we were last year. I think what Eric [Elwood] did the last couple of years in getting to eighth when you compare us with the other teams was massive, but we cannot focus on that. We won’t get there if we do. What I want realistically is that every day we are better, every game, but the work we do every day is about the performance we have on the weekend. If we focus on that, not the table, chances are we can get higher.”
What Lam does promise Saturday’s spectators at the Sportsground is a “team that is going to give it all”.
“At the end of the days we have guys here who want to do well for Connacht and that is what attracted me here. They are passionate about this place, but they have to express that on the field, and that is what I am hoping they will do.”