Pat Lam likes to talk. He’s good at it, too.
His part in the weekly press conference on Tuesday stretched to the half-hour mark — considerable in this business — as he looked back at Connacht’s one-point Challenge Cup defeat in Grenoble and analysed the whys and wherefores of the night and where it leaves them.
Getting him to share some thoughts on Munster was another thing.
Three times he was asked about today’s opponents. Two responses took him in a pretty immediate loop back towards matters closer to home and there was a sense on the third occasion that he was fighting the urge to steer the conversation in much the same direction.
“They’ve got quality players and international players. They have more internationals than we do. We have a lot of respect for what Munster do and we know that if we just go out there trying to muscle up and get caught up in the occasion — because it is going to be the biggest crowd we have ever had and a great atmosphere — then we are going to come off second-best.
“Everyone’s season is on the line,” he added, ahead of a game that could push them towards a Guinness PRO12 semi-final and even a home berth. “Everyone is fighting to get into that top six. They are a desperate team, too, but they have enough quality players that can cause trouble if we don’t deal with it well.”
It was much the same scenario with the follow-up, which was nothing more than a routine request to give his thoughts on Johnny Holland, the young Munster out-half who was thrust into the spotlight against Leinster when preferred to Ian Keatley.
Holland didn’t feature in the answer once, though Leinster’s Garry Ringrose did. Lam spoke instead about the Irish attitude to young players often being centred on what they cannot do rather than what they can. This is a topic he could dwell on all day, but he has walked the walk, too. Connacht’s casualty list has been downright catastrophic at times this campaign, or at least it should have been only for Lam to make a virtue of something that threatened to paint them as victims. It is an astonishing, and an under-rated, achievement.
Nine of those who started in Grenoble were 25 or under. Three of the XV — Matt Healy, Niyi Adeolukon and Finlay Bealham — have been airlifted in from the AIL in recent years. Another two — Sean O’Brien and James Connolly — are still registered with the academy. Lam put Connacht’s ability to fill the gaps into perspective when noting Shane O’Leary and Connolly had featured more for Corinthians and Galwegians, respectively, than the senior provincial side this season and yet they slotted in seamlessly.
“I am excited by what some of these young guys will be able to do, having not thought they would be in this situation at the start of the season,” said Lam. “Injuries or form will dictate if you get the chance. Just make sure you take it.”
Leinster émigré Peter Robb is another example of how young players are benefiting from the fast-track approach out west, something borne of the merging of minds between Lam and Nigel Carolan, the academy director who is double-jobbing as Ireland U20s head coach. Carolan shares Lam’s heads-up approach and Robb, who came on in France last weekend, was fulsome in his praise of the academy.
“The set-up in the academy is top-class. We do our skills four times a week and a lot of pitch sessions and extra skills with Nigel and Jimmy Duffy did a lot of that with us last year. It’s been really helpful preparing us for this year. I feel like a lot of the academy lads have made a big step up pretty easy. The training is a bit more intense down here [than at Leinster]. The training is a bit more full-on. It does mean less college time and all that, but it is hopefully making you a better player. The structures here are brilliant. No-one can say they didn’t improve down here.”
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