Everything on the line for Connacht in front of sold-out Sportsground
THE FINAL HOME match of the regular season, a place in the Pro14 play-offs at stake, Champions Cup qualification on the line, and a sold-out Sportsground – games don’t come much bigger than this for Andy Friend’s Connacht.
After a hugely progressive and encouraging first season under the Australian head coach, the province must take one final step by assuring themselves of top-flight European rugby for next season, while advancing through to the league quarter-finals.
The significance of the occasion is not lost on the Connacht fans, who will cram into the Sportsground this afternoon for the visit of Cardiff Blues [KO 3pm, TG4, Premier Sports], as their side look to get across the line with a game left to spare.
It promises to be a thrilling, tension-laden occasion.
It’s a big day for Andy Friend and Connacht. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO
After last week’s hard-fought win in Zebre, the equation for the western province is simple; just four points separate the sides at the start of the day, but any sort of victory for Connacht would guarantee them a top-three finish in Conference A ahead of their final-day trip to Thomond Park.
Cardiff, however, have designs on spoiling the Saturday afternoon party in Galway, having won the last three meetings between the teams, including a 17-15 at the Sportsground last season.
While Connacht’s fate remains in their own hands, the Welsh side know they must leave the west with nothing less than a win if they are to retain hope of a top-three finish heading into round 21, setting this up to be a fascinating showdown.
The stakes couldn’t be much higher for both teams.
Friend’s side will be desperate to give themselves a shot at silverware through the play-offs, but a return to the Champions Cup for the first time since the 2016/17 campaign would be of greater importance, as the club look to move forward again. Failure to do so having done so much good this term would be seen as a major setback.
Of course, all would not be lost if Connacht fail to get the desired outcome today, but they will not want to travel to Limerick in a fortnight needing a result against a Munster side who are likely to be chasing a home semi-final. Now is their big chance to get the job done.
“The stakes are really high but our destiny remains in our own hands,” Friend says.
“If we perform on Saturday and can win the game we can secure that play-off on Saturday night and ensure a Champions Cup spot, which would be brilliant.
Connacht’s chances are boosted by a near full-strength side, with only Quinn Roux [illness] and Finlay Bealham [hand] missing from the starting XV, while the febrile home crowd are sure to play a big part.
Friend makes two changes in personnel from last week with Bundee Aki resuming his midfield partnership with Tom Farrell and Paul Boyle coming into the back row alongside Colby Fainga’a and captain Jarrad Butler.
Aki’s return is a significant fillip and his head-to-head battle with fellow Kiwi Willis Halaholo will be fascinating, with Caolin Blade again selected at scrum-half ahead of Kieran Marmion, who must settle for a place on the bench.
The experience garnered by the likes of Blade, Farrell and Jack Carty during their time spent in Ireland camp has been invaluable, while the return to form of Ultan Dillane has helped Connacht make big strides under the highly-likeable Friend.
“The culture has been driven quite well by all the players this season,” Dillane says. “They put a focus in pre-season on just trying to get a bit more leadership out of players and it’s definitely come through. It has shown in some of the big wins this season.
Aki’s return is a big boost for Connacht. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
“Andy knows how to give confidence to players, he has driven us to work on our weaknesses a lot more this season. We all know what flaws we have but we’re doing a lot to iron them out and to improve with each game.”
Connacht will certainly be hoping for a much-improved performance from last week, when they were fortunate to escape Parma with a narrow 6-5 victory after a disjointed and error-strewn display against Zebre.
And their home form will be a big factor here, having lost just once in Galway in both the Pro14 and Challenge Cup since the inter-pro defeat to Munster back in round 13, while Connacht have won their last three league outings, and are bidding to record a fourth straight victory for the first time in two years.
“We are treating this game as a cup final because we don’t want to have to go down to Thomond Park next week needing other results to go our way,” Farrell said during the week.
“If we can keep winning our own games and keep our destiny in our own hands that is what we are looking to do. The season on a whole has definitely been positive. There has been that steady progression. We are in a happy place. There is just one last step to go now.
Cardiff pose a dangerous threat, though. Despite suffering defeat in Cork last weekend, John Mulvihill’s side showed how lethal they can be and now in make-or-break territory, will arrive in Galway knowing they’ve nothing to lose.
”This is a grand final for us and if we don’t get the result that we want we will be looking to a fourth-placed play-off,” their head coach said. “The club has never played in the final series so that’s our burning desire.”
The Blues have made three changes with Jason Harries coming onto the wing in place of the injured Aled Summerhill, Ethan Lewis replacing Kristian Dacey in the pack and George Earle coming in for Shane Lewis-Hughes.
“We’ll have a big job on our hands,” Dillane admitted.
A season-defining game for both teams. It’s all set up beautifully.
15. Tiernan O’Halloran
14. Darragh Leader
13. Tom Farrell
12. Bundee Aki
11. Matt Healy
10. Jack Carty
9. Caolin Blade
1. Denis Buckley
2. Dave Heffernan
3. Dominic Robertson-McCoy
4. Ultan Dillane
5. Gavin Thornbury
6. Paul Boyle
7. Colby Fainga’a
8. Jarrad Butler (captain).
16. Shane Delahunt
17. Matthew Burke
18. Conor Carey
19. James Cannon
20. Robin Copeland
21. Kieran Marmion
22. Tom Daly
23. Cian Kelleher.
15. Matthew Morgan
14. Owen Lane
13. Rey Lee-Lo
12. Willis Halaholo
11. Jason Harries
10. Gareth Anscombe (captain)
9. Tomos Williams
1. Rhys Gill
2. Ethan Lewis
3. Dillon Lewis
4. George Earle
5. Rory Thornton
6. Josh Turnbull
7. Olly Robinson
8. Seb Davies.
16. Liam Belcher
17. Rhys Carre
18. Dmitri Arhip
19. Shane Lewis-Hughes
20. James Botham
21. Lloyd Williams
22. Jarrod Evans
23. Garyn Smith.
Referee: Mike Adamson [SRU].
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