The much-anticipated 2013/14 Heineken Cup commences tomorrow and once again Connacht Rugby will face some of Europe’s elite clubs, starting with Saracens at the Galway Sporstground (8pm ).
Now in their third Heineken Cup campaign, Connacht will face two current leading sides in Saracens and Toulouse, in addition to familiar Pro 12 campaigners Zebre.
First up are the current English premiership leaders Saracens and without doubt it is a daunting prospect. Unbeaten in five fixtures, Saracens, beaten by Toulon in the last season’s semi-final, mean business this year. Despite being coached by former Irish and Ulster star Mark McCall, Saracens is one of the English clubs, which, in conflict with the current ERC set-up, is a leading light in the breakaway tournament. In their first visit to the Galway Sportsground, it adds a little spice to this fixture.
Connacht enter the match after a poor start to the Pro 12 season, but Lam says his players will front up to Sarries in the same way they always do.
“There’s a lot of stake because it’s a European Cup game full stop. It’s a massive game in that sense and you have seen the impact Heineken Cup rugby has had here. The boys are aware of that, regardless of all the politics. What we can control is to come here and give everything we can on the rugby field.”
Saracens rested front-line players last week so Connacht fans can expect a team that is looking to outmuscle and out run their opponents. Players like Billy Vunipola, Jacques Burger, Steve Borthwick, Petrus de Plessis, Matt Stevens, Owen Farrell and Chris Ashton are household names, but Lam insists it is no different from usual.
“That’s what we face week-in week-out. When I look at their front row of two British Lions, that is what we are up against. But that is the challenge.
“Saracens are on a roll. They are not only beating top teams in the premiership, but smashing them, and we know it is going to be a big ask, but that's exciting.
"How do we approach the game? The guys are looking forward to it. We go into the match with the frame of mind that is the Connacht way. That may be hard for people to understand, but these guys are committed. Sure we make some errors, but they are committed and they fight to the end.
Connacht have been hit by more injuries ahead of tomorrow’s opener and Lam will announce his team today.
Having lost both tightheads Ronan Loughney (head knock ) and Nathan White (calf ) in the first half of last Friday's Pro 12 fixture in Treviso, Pat Lam says it is unlikely either will feature against the current English premiership leaders. It leaves Connacht struggling in the front row with only Rodney Ah You and JP Cooney available. In addition centre Eoin Griffin suffered a foot injury which could see him sidelined for four weeks.
The good news is Michael Swift and Jake Heenan have been passed fit and will play, while Robbie Henshaw will be available.
"We are disappointed where we are at in the Pro 12, and now we face a massive challenge this week, but we have to stay focused on where we are trying to head to. The thing that is encouraging is the progress we are making, but the areas we are losing is penalties conceded and lost possession, and that is through poor kicking, losing the ball in contact. Our decision making and execution are costing us and we have to be more clinical."
Over the past two seasons Connacht Rugby has gained considerable respect on the European stage. Much of that is a result of the players’ ability to rise to the big occasion. And, with a huge home crowd behind them, there is no better time than tomorrow to do it again.
Co-captain John Muldoon says: “Results have not gone our way in the last couple of weeks and no one gives us a chance, but it’s a great opportnuity for all of us to go out, as underdogs as we have hundreds of times before, and give it our best. With a home crowd shouting for us, we know we will be well supported. We have nothing to lose, all the pressure is on them, and this competition is certainly special. Heineken Cup rugby is about Friday nights and having an opportunity to put our wares out there.”