Connacht’s new-found confidence and recent winning form will be tested by back-to-back champions Leinster in their Guinness Pro 12 meeting at the Galway Sportsground tomorrow evening (7.45pm ).
Having dug deep to grab two narrow wins in their opening two matches, Connacht now have a real prospect of achieving a record three successive wins to start their season. It would be a huge accomplishment and a real signal of intent, and it is also a challenge coach Pat Lam knows is achievable.
"There is no doubt if you put their squad up against ours, they should win every time, but if we perform well, we give ourselves a chance,” he says.
“ Look at what they [Leinster] did to Scarlets. Look at their side. That is the challenge. We have only two guys who have started internationals [John Muldoon and Robbie Henshaw] and that is the challenge. We have a young side, guys going into a game playing in front of a big crowd, it's all part of the learnings, and we accept it because of that's who we are. We know we are up against it, but we certainly won't lie down.”
Connacht’s prospects have not been helped by more injuries. Hooker Sean Henry has been ruled out for up to five months with a knee injury, wing Danie Poolman is doubtful having suffered a head knock in Connacht's win over Edinburgh, and openside flanker Jake Heenan, who injured his shoulder against the Dragons, will be out for up to five months with more surgery required. Good news is the return of winger Matt Healy to training, who would be expected to replace Poolman if he is ruled out.
"Cover for the hooker position is Jack Dinneen, a year one Academy player, and Shane Delahunt, who is in the sub-Academy but was with us in Clermont. Both young boys and, with Tom McCartney not here [ITM Cup tied], Jason Harris-Wright [injured] and Sean Henry, it is a big blow to us, but again an opportunity for others to step up.”
The absence of openside cover - Academy players are also injured - means Lam will use his current backrow if needed.
While much national focus will be on Connacht’s Ireland squad members Robbie Henshaw and Kieran Marmion, Lam’s focus is on preparation and teamwork.
“It’s good to have Robbie back, and he would be the first to admit things did not go as well [against Edinburgh], he was a bit rusty - not on defence - and I would expect to see an improved performance from the whole team. Everyone as individuals were not at their best, but guys covered for each other, so I would expect a better performance as a group.
“ We know the fans are excited by what we have done so far and where we sit, but every time we rock into the Sportsgound, it is important we perform. No doubt Leinster should win, but for ourselves, our fans, it’s about giving it everything as a team.”
Although Connacht’s performance in BT Murrayfield was littered with errors, their character was sufficient to grab a late try, seeing them over the line by 14-13.
Edinburgh, having edged the first half stakes, led by 13-6 at half time courtesy of two Tom Heathcote penalties and a Cornell du Preez try on 42 minutes, while Connacht’s Darragh Leader kicked two penalties, having missed two earlier attempts. However he slotted a 55th minute effort after WP Nel was binned to cut the deficit to bonus point territory. Heading into the last six minutes, it looked all over for Connacht but once the pack did its job, driving over for Willie Faloon to touch down.
Connacht v Edinburgh: D Leader; N Adeolokun, R Hen, D McSharry, D Poolman; J Carty,K Marmion; D Buckley, D Heffernan, N White; M Kearney, Q Roux; J Muldoon, Willie, E McKeon. Replacements, S Henry for Heffernan (40 ), F Carr for Poolman (53 ),G Naoupu for McKeon (53 ), R Ah You for White (73 ), A Muldowney for Kearney (56 ), C Ronaldson for Leader (69 ) R Ah You for White (73 ).