For head coach Pat Lam and the Connacht squad the goal for the new season remains clear: qualify for the European Rugby Champions Cup

“Our goal hasn’t changed. We want to qualify for the Champions Cup next year”, said Lam. “While we had our best finish in the league and achieved a lot of milestones last season, we were all extremely disappointed to fall just short of our ultimate goal of Champions Cup but getting so close has instilled real belief that we can achieve it this season and we are determined to do so.

“There are two ways we can qualify this season. We must finish in the top 6 of the PRO12 or win the Challenge Cup. Both would be huge and we’ll be targeting the two competitions from the start. It’s not lost on us that winning the Challenge Cup and a trophy would be massive for Connacht Rugby and our supporters and it’s great that the bonus this year would be Champions Cup qualification.”

Into week six of pre-season, the squad are firmly back into the swing of things at the Sportsground and Lam is pleased with preparations ahead of the 2015/16 season.

“The players came back in really good condition after the few weeks break and are extremely focused. It’s my third year as coach and my third year with a lot of these players so that allowed us to not only pick up where we left off quite seamlessly but also focus on even more detail in terms of our game.”

A record nine Connacht Rugby players were involved in the Emerging Ireland squad that won the Tbsili Cup in June with victories over Emerging Italy, Uruguay and Georgia. Those players – Tiernan O’Halloran, Matt Healy, John Cooney, Denis Buckley, Finlay Bealham, Eoghan Masterson, Ben Marshall, Dave Heffernan, and Andrew Browne – all linked up with the squad in Galway three weeks ago:

“It’s good to have the Emerging players back”, said Lam. We had really good feedback from the Irish coaches on the contribution from all the Connacht boys which was very pleasing. We’ve had to manage the pre-season with them coming back late but it’s a good complaint to have as that’s where we want to see the boys playing and pushing for honours.  They’ve all come back in good nick and have reintegrated well.”

In a World Cup year that brings a more challenging match schedule as well as a reduced squad, the former Samoa captain, knows too well that it will take a unified effort to achieve success:

“We always have to rely on the entire squad as injuries will undoubtedly play a part in a long season. This year, we will play on 16 consecutive weekends from October through to February and there is no way we will be able to pick the same starting XV for all those games. So like last season, there is a big focus on making sure that the younger and maybe more inexperienced players are ready to step up.

“That process is already taking place and we have had academy players like Conor McKeon, Rory Parata, James Connolly, Saba Meunargia, Shane Delahunt, and Peter Robb all training with the senior squad. This week, we’ve also added in Sean O’Brien after he’s come back from a lengthy injury as well as props Jamie Dever and Jacob Walshe to boost our front row options.

“We were really pleased with Eoghan (Masterson), Caolin (Blade) and Ultan (Dillane) who stepped into the first team last season and I have no doubt that this new crop of young players can do the same if they continue to work hard on their detail on and off the pitch. It’s important too that we have players putting pressure on the more established guys in the team and ensuring that there’s genuine competition there for places.”

Connacht kick off their 2015/16 campaign with the first of three pre-season games against Grenoble on Friday August 7th at the Sportsground (kick off 5:15pm) followed by games away to Castres (Friday 14th August) and Munster (Friday 21st August) before the official start of the Guinness PRO12 on Friday September 4th with the visit of Newport Gwent Dragons.

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