Connacht head to Italy with new goals

Connacht Rugby head to Italy this week with a new set of goals for this last phase of the season.

Having achieved their primary goal of Champions Cup rugby next season, Connacht are now focused on winning their first Pro 12 league title.

First they take on Benetton Treviso tomorrow evening (6.30pm Irish time ) needing a win to ensure a first Pro 12 semi-final.

"It's become a realistic goal. We don't like to set goals that aren't realistic - at the start of the season it was Champions Cup rugby, but through the work we have done, we have achieved it, and that is our new goal now.

""We have a mini season of five weeks, and without doubt everyone wants to win the Pro 12 now," he says. "No 1 is to get into the semi-final and we need one point from Treviso to do so. But history suggests a home semi-final [to win], so we have two games to get a home semi. Tthen if we get that, we back ourselves to get into the final. And, in the final, it is all about winning."

It is the first time Lam has spoken of Connacht's ambitions of winning the Pro 12 League, but, as always, it is the next game on which Connacht must be focused. Benetton Treviso, still three points behind Zebre, in the fight for the Italian spot in the Champions Cup, will certainly be targeting Saturday's fixture against Connacht to achieve that ambition - particularly with title holders Glasgow Warriors hosting Zebre.

Lam knows Treviso will put up a fight, particularly at home, but is banking on Connacht's experience, even without his two influential players, Denis Buckley and Bundee Aki, who are both sidelined through injury.

Buckley suffered an ankle fracture in training and is ruled out for a "number of weeks", but Lam is hopeful the inspirational Aki will have recovered from the knee injury he sustained in Connacht's win over Munster to face Glasgow in the final round fixture in Galway.

"It is a big loss for us. Losing Nathan White and Denis has an impact on our front rowers," he says. "It wasn't even a contact drill - one of the players fell down going for the ball and Denis' leg was in the wrong place. He has always been miraculous with his recovery, but we have to be prepared that he is finished for the season, but you never know. It all happened Friday - it's just unfortunate, but we have to move on."

However Lam is hoping Aki will make faster progress.

"He's trying to run around now and we are trying to hold him back," said Lam. "We'd be hopeful for the Glasgow game, it depends on the next week, how fast he progresses. It's not ideal, but we have faced that challenge many times throughout the year, and we have confidence in the next guy who steps up.

"Without a doubt coming to the end off the season, Denis would be a contender for the forward of the year and Bundee for one of the backs of the year - the consistency of their performances throughout the season has been fantastic."

Ben Marshall and White continue to be managed for respective head injuries, but there is good news in the Connacht camp with the return of fullback Tiernan O'Halloran, outhalf Aj MacGinty, and open side Jake Heenan.

All three would be a welcome return for Connacht, but Lam could well view Saturday's test as an opportunity for some of the replacements to have their opportunity to step up, while also resting others for the final pool fixture against Glasgow.

"No doubt they will come out all guns blazing, but for the last seven weeks we have had all guns blazing, and whether we are expected to win or not, our own expectations is to do our jobs well."

Lam learned a lesson from his first visit to Treviso when Connacht lost to the Italians.

"The first time I looked at it naively, thinking we can run from here, open them up, but the game got away from us. I said next time I'd never make that mistake again, get basics right, and last year we were very conservative just to get the job done

"This year it is different. Ideally we want five points, and we are a different team from years three to one. We are not going over to be conservative, but to take all the learnings from the last three weeks, the maturity of the the team and the confidence to really have a go. On this third time back we have a different mentality and expectation of ourselves."



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