Pat Lam hopes Connacht can cause a few Heineken Cup upsets

By Nikki GreggBBC Sport NI
Connacht coach Pat Lam
Pat Lam

Pat Lam knows all about upsets. He made his debut for Western Samoa in the 1991 World Cup pool game against Wales, a match that sent shockwaves around Cardiff Arms Park and beyond.

Against a side featuring Scott Gibbs, Ieuan Evans, and Robert Jones, the Pacific Islanders showed scant regard for reputation in recording a famous 16-13 victory which gave rise to the welsh quip: "Thank goodness we weren't playing all of Samoa".

They did at the 1999 tournament and on that occasion it was 38-31 defeat for the hosts. Lam's rampaging runs around the Millennium Stadium typified the day, setting up a try and scoring from an intercept.

That personal history suggests he's the perfect fit for Connacht.

The western province has carved a name for itself in battling the odds. Ten years ago its very existence was in doubt as the IRFU came close to shutting down Connacht Rugby in a bid to cut costs. Supporters marched to the Union's Dublin HQ in protest while the Players Association threatened to strike, forcing the IRFU to abandon its plan.

On Friday night, close to 10 thousand fans will converge on the Sportsground in Galway for the opening pool game of this season's Heineken Cup. Saracens will arrive as English Premiership league leaders on the back of a five-game winning streak.

As ever, Connacht assume the role of underdogs.

"Saracens are going really well and no-one will give us a chance there except the team and our supporters so that's something that we've got to use," acknowledges Lam.

It could prove a crucial fixture in a pool that also includes Toulouse and Zebre.

"The beauty of being involved in Europe is that on any given day, any team can win. We've got to make sure we channel all that energy and that typical Connacht fight into a process that will give us the best chance to win the games."

Lam is not a head coach that will feed off emotion alone. The former number eight, known for his physicality and flair is hoping to add precision to Connacht's armoury, with a hardened edge.

Three months after succeeding Eric Elwood in the role, Lam says he is very pleased with how the squad has bought into his ideas but one win in the Pro 12 campaign to date suggests this is very much a work in progress.

"The Heineken Cup has probably come at a good time for us," he admits. "Every team wants to win rugby games. We've got to keep building to make sure the game that we are trying to play comes through."

When Lam speaks of how special the tournament is, he speaks from experience having been part of the Northampton side that lifted the trophy in 2000.

Dan Parks
The kicking form of Dan Parks will be crucial to Connacht

"I almost missed the final against Munster. My fourth child was due on the day of the final but thankfully he arrived early. He's 13 now and every time he has his birthday, it reminds me of what we achieved.

"We scraped through the pool, every game was tough. We just won the quarter-final against Wasps. Then it was Llanelli Scarlets in the semis and we just got past them in injury time. Thankfully, Ronan O'Gara missed a penalty in the final for us to win 9-8. It was a tight tournament.

"Every time I see those guys from the team I played in, we shake hands, have a hug, we look at each other and we know that we were Heineken Cup winners. The tournament means a lot to players and coaches."

Connacht's European high point came in the 2011/2012 season when Conor O'Shea's eye-catching Harlequins side arrived in Galway ready to book a place in the quarter-finals and were turned over 9-8.

As Anglo -French plans to form a breakaway tournament next season gather pace, there have been questions raised over what that might mean for Connacht and whether it can survive in a changing European landscape.

Lam's outlook on the topic is simple: "You've got to have aspirations.

"We need to make sure that we are building on and off the field to make sure that we are giving ourselves every chance of being part of whatever Europe is ahead. We know the team is only the shop window of what's going on behind the scenes and there are a lot of areas that need to be improved.

The key is that we have a clear idea of where we want to head.

That's the same for the players. We're all trying to work hard to get better each day so we give ourselves that chance to be competitive."

He doesn't know any other way.

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