This is the moment for Connacht Rugby

By Linley MacKenzie

Connacht Rugby face their "ultimate" test on Saturday when they take on Irish aristocrats Leinster in Scotland in a bid to claim this year's Guinness Pro 12 League crown.

Murrayfield - the home of Scottish rugby in Edinburgh - is the venue where the newcomers are up against the four-times champions, the culmination of an incredible season's journey for Connacht Rugby and one to cherish. Everyone knows the history, but to have come this far after facing the axe in 2003 is testament to the province's perseverance and continuing aspirations to be the best. Most neutrals in Ireland and in the Pro 12 will be willing Connacht to complete their most successful season with the ultimate prize.

Coach Pat Lam, in his third season in charge, says he is a teacher whose subject is rugby. To that end he is using all his experience as a teacher, coach, and as a player for Auckland, Newcastle, Northampton and Samoa, to prime his young charges for the task ahead.

"If you picked one team that would be the toughest challenge, it would be Leinster, and a lot of those players are where our players aspire to be, they have set the benchmark. So if you want to test your self against the best, here is a change to test ourselves against one of the top teams in Europe over the last 10 years," he says.

Leinster, with four Pro 12 titles and two European Cups already in the bag, routed Ulster in their semi-final by 30-18; Connacht edged Glasgow Warriers by 16-11, and now Lam accepts Connacht have to raise the standard again if they have real hopes of claiming their first silverware.

"That is the challenge, that is exciting. We were really impressed with what Leinster did, the whole country is and everyone talking about it. That is where we need to be at, and if we don't have understanding of how we need to play, and if we don't bring the right preparation to it, we will get beaten off the park."

"They have the best players in Ireland. Jamie Heaslip, Johnnie Sexton and Eoin Reddan. Eight, nine, ten is your key core. That’s why I’ve obviously been pleased with John Muldoon at eight for us, Kieran Marmion and Aj MacGinty. Our lads are obviously less experienced, but they’ve been playing well together, particularly in last month or so," Lam says. " You’ve got a pretty good attacking team [Connacht] against a quality defensive team[Leinster].

Unlikely to make many changes to the side that overcame Glasgow, Lam says this final is all about preparation and dealing with the bumps and bruises players are carrying over from those two big games. The availability of Danie Poolman is the only change on the injury list, while the heavily strapped Bundee Aki will take part in modified training this week.

"My job is to make sure they manage their week. Some guys did weights yesterday, some went into massage. When I played that Heineken Cup final with Northampton against Munster, I didn't train all week, I had shoulder [injury], but I was making sure I was in there and prepped so by the time I arrived at Twickenham, I knew I was ready.

"There are guys in here, some can do training all week, some will have to manage it, that is just part of the experience when you get to the final. A lot of work has already been done, but it's about getting real clear on what the plan is.

"Our approach has always been understanding what we’re up against. Our approach is doing our homework. We’ve got to understand how can we beat Leinster, understand what their strengths are and how we can cope with that, and then understanding what we’re good at and how we can apply the pressure. That gives you the best chance of winning games.

"We played Leinster twice. Two tough games. Better stage, and better conditions. Two good teams. It’s really set up to be a great game. I know they won’t hold back and we won’t hold back."

Few in Connacht have big match day experience, let along winning titles - Bundee Aki (Chiefs ), Tom McCartney (Auckland and the Blues ), and John Muldoon (Galway minor hurling ).

"Probably my biggest learning I’ve had, it’s one that was massive for me as a young player, was Rugby World Cup in 1991 for Samoa.

"I remember we beat Wales, we just lost to Australia and we beat Argentina. But that whole week I was clear in my mind. There was no-one at training, we could go without being interrupted, we stayed in a three-star hotel. Everything was low profile and we just got on with our business. Then we qualified for the quarter-finals and we went to Scotland and everything changed.

"It was just an unbelievably crazy week. Scotland in the meantime, under Ian McGeechan, he told me, they just got themselves into test-match rugby mode, no interruptions, and they came out and just blitzed us in the quarter-final. It was a massive learning curve for me as I went on to captain teams."

To that extend Lam has changed little in this week's preparation.

"When I think about all the thing we have achieved this year, we've used 46 players, and eight Academy were blooded, and when I look at it, and go back, we managed to acheive this, this, this, and this, and that has brought us to this stage. Yes, it is the same, and nothing has really changed

"I do the schedule every week and I work with the head of departments, but I try to make sure there's a lot of repetition so the boys always know what is going to happen, For the boys it's part of their culture and psych.

"The worst thing you can do is insulate them. This over here [the hype] and it's great, but this is what we do. We have been doing it all year. When we get a success, like when we beat Munster away, part of that review was how did we do that, so we go back to see what we did all week, and my role is to highlight where the learnings can happen.

"Players will always make mistakes, it is how you react to them. We are now on the weekend when we will went to keep the ball, but we are going to be under pressure, and lose it. Likewise we will get the ball off them, but it is what you do with the ball that is most important, how you react.

"The whole thing about reacting under pressure, the distractions, off the efield - it is no different in the game, it is how you react, and that has been the big part. When I talk about channelling everything in the game, that is what I mean. A guy can get up off the ground or he can stay on the ground, he can quickly move and in one second have made two metres, that can make a big difference. What determines if he is going to get off the ground is how much Connacht means to him, how much the team means to him, and that is what we have been seeing a lot more of at different times."

Connacht have never abandoned their principles of expansive attacking rugby, and that is not about to change on Saturday.

"The biggest thing is making sure you make the most of the day. You can’t go in there and come off there and have regrets. And to do that, you go back to what we do.

"This is a celebration. The weekend is a celebration for what we’ve done collectively. Our whole squad is going over. The Academy boys who trained with us will all be going over. The ones who have been selected since the start of season.

It is a celebration of the work that everyone has done. Even the guys who get the jersey this week, they’re representing everyone. It’s been a combined effort."

Players and staff from the past, fans who have supported the province through so many hard times, and now the growing number of supporters who are heading to the Edinburgh capital will certainly agree with that sentiment.


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