Connacht return to Pro 12 League action after the two-week break for the Six Nations and face title-chasing Munster in Thomond Park on Saturday (5.15pm ).
Having put their controversial injury-time defeat to Cardiff behind them, and the consequential misconduct fine for coach Pat Lam’s post-match media interviews, Connacht head to Limerick knowing anything other than a win will put their Champions Cup qualification on the line. Lose, and either Scarlets or Edinburgh, who square off in Llanelli, will overtake Connacht in the vital sixth place position.
The man with the whistle is the Welshman Leighton Hodges, the touch judge who was at the centre of Lam’s post-match Cardiff comments, and if anything it should ensure Connacht produce a disciplined performance, in addition to a strong travelling support who has sympathy for Lam.
However it is all about performance on the pitch now for Lam and his squad, and Saturday is the perfect opportunity for a winning riposte.
“No doubt four points is on the line again, and all we can focus on is how to get the four points and what we need to do.
“We have had a physical week’s work, because we felt the last time we had a break we were rusty when we played the Scarlets, so everyone was determined to have a better build into this game.
“We know we are facing Munster, away from home, and down there is not easy and hasn’t been for a long time, but we are positive that if we work hard and prepare well, there is a lot of self belief in this team that we will go down there and perform well.”
Lam has had more injury headaches with which to contend - not least in key areas, midfield and the back row. With Robbie Henshaw being rested after his Six Nations exploits (expected back next week ), and Bundi Aki also close to a return following return to play protocols, centre Dave McSharry is the latest withdrawal having suffered a knee injury which could sideline him for the rest of the season. Danie Poolman is expected to remain in the midfield, with Craig Ronaldson and Conor Finn possible partners. In the back row both Willie Faloon and Jake Heenan will not see action again this season, but second year academy back row Eoghan Masterson is expected to step up into the role, while Eoin McKeon is also back from injury.
“It has been like tag with Willie [Faloon] and Jake [Heenan] - one in, one out - but the pleasing thing is that Eoghan Masterson, in year two of the academy, has developed more. He put in some pretty good performances against the Dragons and Cardiff when he came on as a replacement, so he will step into that role.”
While the odds do not favour Connacht in Thomond Park - they have not won there since 1986 - Lam says his squad has continued to create history this season. Not only could Connacht break that 29-years drought, but become the first Connacht side to record a season’s double, having beaten Munster by 24-16 in round 12.
“The good thing with this group, and they drive it a lot, is they have already created a lot of history this season - so many milestones have been broken. I think that has been purely based on relying on process rather than outcome. We will follow that formula again, to have real clarity on the game plan we need to play against Munster, and focus on that rather than get caught up with the emotion of a derby match.
“We have to make sure we have a really good week to have the best chance to execute the plan we have set up. If we do, we have a good chance of winning this game.”