Connacht head coach Pat Lam has signed a new three-years deal as his squad heads to France for the final European Challenge Cup pool fixture with qualification hopes still alive. Connacht need a bonus-point win from their visit to La Rochlle to qualify for the quarter-finals as one of three best runners-up, but even securing that result could depend on results elsewhere.
Having suffered the setback last weekend at home to pool two favourites Exeter by 33-24 at the Galway Sportsground, Pat Lam’s squad will take on La Rochelle on Saturday evening knowing they must produce an improved performance to give them every chance. “There is no doubt we want to win, and we are going all out to get a win,” Lam says. Unfortunately for the squad, injuries have robbed them of Robbie Henshaw, sidelined with an ankle injury, and also Craig Ronaldson who suffered a quad strain in the pre-match warm-up last Sunday. And with Bundi Aki also unavailable, Lam will be hoping Dave McSharry, undergoing return to play protocols for concussion, gets a clean bill of health - and if available, it still leaves a vacant spot in the centre.
Lam does have options, which may mean rejigging his team. Mils Muliaina, Darragh Leader, Conor Finn, who played against Bayonne, and Danie Poolman, have all played in the midfield.
What is clear is that Lam will want to take his best available squad to France to give them every chance of a victory. Whether or not the Challenge Cup has been devalued, or that Connacht could face the top seeds away from home, a quarter-final place in the cup has now become a goal.
It will certainly require an improved performance from the second half they displayed against Exeter last weekend. Dynamic out wide, Connacht paid the price for some poor kicking and a lack of dynamism at the breakdown - Lam counted 20 turnovers in all, which he described as unacceptable. The scrum, one of Connacht’s strengths this season, was also under pressure, but assistant coach Dan McFarland will have looked at that closely this week.
Despite a “woeful” opening 10 minutes in the second half, Lam believes the problems are not permanent. “We do have to look at our performance, as individuals and as a team. After two losses a lot of teams can lose belief, but it’s not hard to fix.” In the end, however, Connacht could not quell the Chiefs' power play to secure a home semi-final. Instead they must take the hard road and go to France needing a bonus-point win to give them any chance of an away runners-up spot.
Although Connacht's attacking play was superior out wide, scoring four tries to three, they coughed up too much possession, were on the wrong side of a 13-4 penalty count, and crucially were dominated in the scrum. “To score four tries to three and not win the game is frustrating,” said Lam. Connacht had carved out a 17 - 10 lead, courtesy of three superb tries from Danie Poolman, Matt Healy, and Wille Faloon. “Healy was superb, “ said Lam. “The conditions suited Matt’s game better. He was always dangerous, but lost ball in contact in the past, and he nailed that down as an area to put work in, spent work with Dave Ellis [skills coach], prioritising ball contact. When you add that to his x-factor, he can be well pleased.”