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Wednesday 18 October 2017

Connacht just like foxes - title is a reality

Connacht coach Pat Lam has done an amazing job with the province. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach / Sportsfile
Connacht coach Pat Lam has done an amazing job with the province. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach / Sportsfile

The fact that Connacht rugby ended up with five players on the field against Italy in the recent Six Nations clash showed just how far rugby in the West has come on in recent times.

A few years ago this would have been unheard of, with the Galway-based side only ever accounting for a small, yet significant, contingent in full Irish colours.

Ever since that historic day when the rugby public from all corners of Ireland marched on the IRFU offces just to keep a fourth province in operation, Connacht rugby has grown in stature and importance.

No longer seen as just a development rugby province, feeding the other elite three, Connacht are now poised to do a Leicester. They have a great chance of winning the Pro12, and with it a well-earned chance to dine at the top table of European rugby next season.

Whether long term there is enough financial clout or player strength-in-depth to compete with the sugar daddy clubs in France and England, something the eluded all the other provinces this year, won't worry Pat Lam's men at this juncture of the season.

They have proved over the past couple of years that they at least deserve a chance.

Connacht certainly know how to hype things up in the West, calling this weekend's crucial Pro 12 game against Leinster as one of, if not, the "most important days in the province's history".

They may be right. Tickets sold out for this match weeks ago, the corporate events are buzzing like it was 2007 and the cheerleaders are ready. This has all the trimmings of being a cracking contest.

Nervous

Leinster will be understandably nervous, especially as their coach Leo Cullen will have had limited time to assimilate his Irish stars back into the provincial game.

Lam and his backroom team have added serious consistency to their game this year, and while they were always tough opponents to beat at home in Galway, they too often let themselves down on the road, losing games they should really have won.

This year they have a more clinical, ruthless edge and they are also playing an expansive, width-based game-plan with underrated players, like flying winger Matt Healy in particular, prospering, and unlucky not to be part of the Six Nations set-up.

Consequently, Connacht find themselves atop of the league and just a point ahead of second-placed Leinster, but with a golden chance to put some real daylight between the two teams if they can just continue their impressive home record in the Galway Sports Ground.

With difficult local derbies against Munster and Ulster for both sides to negoatiate in the run-in, this is, in many ways, an eight-point game, with the the winner going a long way to securing an all-important home semi-final.

Leinster will surely field strong, they have too. Last week despite getting a crucial bonus point away in Glasgow, it was still a valuable game in hand that Leinster should have won.

The Blues had numerous chances to put Glasgow to the sword when a number of well-constructed backline plays went awry with the final pass. In the end, Glasgow's defence probably won them the game, but Leinster at least created some great opportunities, they were just a bit naive when they got within scoring range.

This week, Leinster will have to win the battle upfront first and there will be key individual battles as the Connacht fringe players now in the Irish team will want to show the national coach that they can do a number on their more experienced opponents.

Pat Lam has his team playing for each other and, as Leinster coach Girvan Dempsey rightly stated this week, that makes them a very difficult opponent indeed.

Team unity is often the most crucial aspect in all winning teams and the one thing that separates the good and the great.

It's not always just about talent and personnel, just look at Leicester City this seaso - giant slayers that play as a team first.

When games are as close as this one will be, the difference is often as easy as who wants it the most.

Leinster will have the players, they will also have the greater experience at this end of the competition, and they have been in many high-pressure situations before.

Connacht will seek to start the match well, because they will realise that it will take a good section of the game for Leinster's star players to get it together.

Despite playing together for Ireland, it is about how quickly the key Leinster combinations come together.

Connacht has been less disrupted by the loss of players to the Six Nations campaign and Lam has obviously been able to keep his team selections fairly consistent.

Juggling

Cullen, on the other hand, has had more juggling to do.

However, the Blues do have that extra experience and also possibly superior fitness levels over the 80 minutes, given that a lot of the Leinster players that featured for Ireland in the Six Nations and the World Cup will find they have that little bit of increased energy when they drop down to club level.

It's a hard one to call, but I think that if Leinster can dominate in the set-piece game and gel quickly, they will just swing it by a score.

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