If Connacht are to complete their dream season and raise the Guinness Pro12 trophy on Saturday, head coach Pat Lam believes they will have to negotiate the toughest challenge possible in final rivals Leinster.
The final at Murrayfield pits the league’s top-two finishers in an all-Irish decider on Scottish soil with first-place Leinster’s team full of internationals showing their calibre by outclassing Ulster at the RDS in last Friday’s semi-final.
Not that Connacht have had it easy, their runner-up finish, secured with a last-round home win over Glasgow, sending them into an instant rematch back at the Sportsground last Saturday, which the westerners handled superbly to see off the defending champions and book their place in a first final as a professional outfit.
Yet Lam believes three-time Heineken Cup winners and four-time league champions Leinster remain the yardstick for his young and fast-improving side.
“Without a doubt, it is the ultimate final for us,” Lam said yesterday.
“In the sense if you pick one team that we’d say would be the toughest challenge, it’s Leinster. Because we know them so well, and where a lot of those player are, a lot of our players aspire to be.
“They set the benchmark. If you want to test yourself against the best, and we talk to the boys constantly about their rugby education and playing at that highest level, and Test matches, here’s a chance to test ourselves as a team against one of the best in Europe over the last 10 years.”
Connacht emerged from their 16-11 semi-final victory over Glasgow with no fresh injury worries and now have wing Danie Poolman back in the mix following a foot injury.
Lam, though, said he would be monitoring the bumps and bruises from last Saturday’s physical battle, not least Pro12 players’ player of the season and man of the match Bundee Aki, who left the field with a knee issue and would, along with other players, take part in modified training.
Lam, who won a Heineken Cup with Northampton after a final victory over Munster in 2000 at Twickenham, said he would draw on his experiences as a player to help his squad manage what for many will be a first final in their careers.
For the former Samoan international No.8 that means sticking with the same approach this week as they have taken all season.
“It’s what we do all the time, when we finished the game, an hour after all the post-match stuff, I sent the schedule.
"It took me five minutes to write up the schedule because it’s just a repeat of our normal schedule, highlighting the travel we have. I know there’s a lot of request for different things to do, we’ve kept it as normal as possible.
“Probably the biggest learning I’ve ever had, it’s one that was massive for me as a young player, was Rugby World Cup 1991 with Samoa.
“I remember we beat Wales and just lost to Australia and beat Argentina. That whole week clear in mind, we had no one at training, we could go anywhere without being interrupted, we stayed in a three-star hotel. Everything was low profile and we went about our business.
“Then we qualified for the quarter-finals and we went to Scotland. Everything changed. Media, all sorts of activities. It was an unbelievably crazy week. We had families in hotels, more gear, we were staying in five-star hotels, the boys had buffet food. It was a complete change.
“Scotland in the mean-time, with Ian McGeechan - he told me exactly what they did - they got themselves into Test match mode, no interruptions, and they came out and blitzed us in the quarter-final.
"It was a massive learning curve for me as I went on to captain teams.” Lam’s memory of the European win with Northampton also comes with a personal milestone.
“At the moment it’s a massive anniversary for me, it’s my boy Josiah’s birthday today and he was the one who, when we were going to play Munster 16 years ago, he was supposed to be due on the day of the final.
"The boys knew I wouldn’t be there if my wife went into labour, so there was a back-up plan. As it panned out, he turned out today.
“I remember that whole week too, part of the learning I used right through was making that whole week normal as we played Munster. It’s something I’ve always done as a coach, a big lesson.
“You acknowledge all the peripheral stuff and we’re excited.
"It’s a great occasion, we’re so pleased to be here and we’ve worked hard to be here, but we understand that, if we’re going to win this thing which is what we desperately want to do, we have to go about our business as normal as possible.”
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