Connacht coach Pat Lam warned favourites Leinster that they are not just happy to be in the Guinness Pro12 final and will give every last ounce of effort to ensure their fairytale season ends with an unlikely silver lining.
The two provinces will clash at BT Murrayfield this evening with the title destined to end up in Irish hands for a ninth time out of 15 but a first-ever victory for Connacht, who for so long have been the little brothers of rugby in the Emerald Isle, would be the least likely championship triumph since the competition began in 2001. The bookies may have four-time winners and three-time European champions Leinster as odds-on favourite but Lam issued one last rallying call at yesterday’s media conference in Edinburgh.
“We’re not happy just to be here,” said the Samoan. “Our goal is to win the trophy. There is no point showing up otherwise.
“Walking out there on the pitch, the stadium is magnificent, the playing surface is magnificent, we’re in the home Scotland changing room so everything is bigger and better than we are used to – but we feel we have earned the right to be here. You couldn’t have asked for a better stage for us.
“The preparation is done, it’s now about channelling the emotion into our game and going out there to enjoy it. It’s a real celebration for the lucky ones there, who are getting to wear the jersey for all their mates who have been involved this season.”
Connacht have been in the top four all season, only lost once at home and finished strongly to secure their historic final berth with back-to-back wins over reigning champions Glasgow in the last game of the regular season and last weekend’s semi-final at their atmospheric Galway Sportsground.
Lam continued: “Yes, we are on unchartered territory compared to what Leinster have done in finals rugby, but when we look back at some of the experiences we’ve had when we had to beat Glasgow at home to get a home semi, and we had to win last week to be here.”
Lam was keen to stress the utmost respect his team have for a side for whom Connacht have spent much of their history in the shadow of and added: “We are under no illusions about the challenge we face. There is a lot of respect for what Leinster has done as a province and there is no doubt all of Connacht were behind Leinster these last ten years when they have gone out there and represented Ireland.
“They have set a really good benchmark, but it is different now we are playing them and there’s a lot of excitement about that.”
Leinster looked formidable when they trounced Ulster 30-18 in last weekend’s semi-final in Dublin but it is not something which has Lam feeling any uneasiness. “It’s good for Irish rugby that they are coming good. They are all quality players. It’s good going into a game that we are clear about what we are up against. They are on form.
“They played really well last week. Fourteen of those guys will be touring to South Africa [with Ireland], but if we are going to win this thing I want to win it against the best possible team.”
Connacht’s stalwart skipper John Muldoon will make his 275th appearance for the province today and is a man clearly in his element right now.
The 33-year-old flanker said: “When I joined Connach losing was very frustrating for me. But there are young fellows in the team, and supporters coming into the Sportsground now, who don’t know anything about losing.
“I’ve known both sides. Winning and losing are habits. We went through big losing streaks in our time. Confidence was low, but everyone now wants to play each week. The culture has changed and the mindset has changed a lot. We now believe we can beat anyone and do it away from home as well. That has been a big change this year.”
Lam is boosted by the fact he is able to name the same starting XV in consecutive games for the first time this season, while Leinster lose the influential duo of skipper Isa Nacewa with an arm injury and lock Devon Toner, who has suffered a family bereavement.
Rob Kearney comes in at full-back, with Ross Molony slotting in at lock and Leinster coach Leo Cullen is looking forward to returning to the stadium where he lifted Leinster’s first Heineken Cup in 2009.
“It will always be a special place,” said Cullen. “For Leinster as a club, who had strived for some number of years to achieve something in Europe, this will always be a special venue.”
Leinster skipper Jamie Heaslip, meanwhile, tried to downplay the vast gulf in experience of this kind of occasion that separates the two teams.
“I really don’t think it counts for a whole lot,” said the Ireland No 8. “You could argue that they are a side who are playing with a lot of good momentum.
“They probably have the advantage.
“On the day it’s anyone’s. You’ve got to take your chances and not give the opposition any opportunities to get into the game or get ahead.
“Tomorrow is a massive test for this group of players.”