Connacht are facing the stark reality of their Champions Cup quarter-final hopes coming to an abrupt end unless they can pull off a victory over Gloucester at the Sportsground on Saturday (12.45pm ).
Gloucester have the upper hand. They delivered a 26-17 win in Kingsholm on Sunday in the first of the back-to-back fixtures, they have never lost to Connacht in their previous six meetings, and they will view a visit to Galway as another opportunity to put some momentum into what has been a disappointing season to date.
How then will Connacht produce the necessary win to keep their cup hopes alive? Certainly the home support will help, and the Clan in the Stand have never been found lacking, but on the field Andy Friend's men need to produce a performance of intent and accuracy.
"The most important thing for us is to get the performance, and if we can produce that, we know we can win," says Friend.
"Gloucester will turn up a different team this Saturday. In getting the bonus point, they now have a belief they can get that top position in the pool, certainly the second position, so we have to contend with that. It is must-win football, but to me it is more about the performance. We are chasing that performance we know we can put out there for 80 minutes. We see it in patches, but we have to be better and do it for 80 minutes."
Colby Fainga’a injury
Last Sunday there was little between the sides - territory and possession were even, similarly line-out and scrum success. But if small margins count, then Gloucester missed fewer tackles, beat more defenders, produced more line-breaks, and made more metres, through danger men Tom Marshall, Louis Rees-Zammitt, and Ollie Thorley. In the pack World Cup winner Franco Mostert led the line-out stats. Add in which team needed it more, Gloucester would probably put their hands up. After a poor run of form in the premiership and European competition, they were desperate to break a run of five successive defeats.
Now those tables are turned particularly as Connacht head into the toughest period of the season with three interprovincial fights over the Christmas period. Always a difficult time for Connacht, and exacerbated by injuries, bigger squads always find it easier to manage. Now openside flanker Colby Fainga'a has been ruled out after suffering another injury to his medial collateral ligament which sidelined him earlier in the season. Although "not as bad" as first thought, he will be out for at least two weeks. And still missing are Matt Healy, who is back training following a quad strain, Paddy McAllister, Kieran Marmion, Tiernan O'Halloran, Tom Farrell, Darragh Leader, Stephen Fitzgerald, and Gavin Thornbury. In addition both Bundee Aki and Jack Carty need to be managed per IRFU protocols.
Friend's selection hand will be limited, but this week Paul Boyle is expected to return in the absence of Fainga'a, while Eoin McKeon is a likely replacement.
"Saturday's game is important because it is at home, and after the last couple of performances we know we can be better, and we need the win to stay alive in the Champions Cup," Friend says. "That was our intention when we came into the competition, and we need momentum going into the next one - so it's a massively important game for us."
However, it knows Connacht need everything to go their way.
"We need a five-point win on Saturday. If that doesn't happen, we are definitely gone, but where there is a glimmer of hope, we will keeping chasing that, so we are going to chase it this weekend.
"We want to be winning in the Sportsground, there's no doubt about that. It's a game we want to win, and I still feel if everything goes our way, we can still get out of this pool.”
Sunday's 26-17 defeat in Gloucester extended Connacht's losing run in England to nearly a decade. Despite being ahead at the break 10-7 last weekend in Kingsholm, Connacht frustratingly left without even a bonus point.
"I felt we were in a good position at half-time," Friend says. "We steal a line-out off their ball 45 minutes in and have a great opportunity to attack, and instead 30 seconds later we are sitting under our post, which was frustrating. Clever from Danny Cipriana, but we weren't as clinical as we could have been.
"The intercept had a massive bearing, and 10 minutes later we are down to 14 men and the game is gone. Even after the intercept, I felt there were good battles, but we were the team that broke. [It was] another one where we say we are our own worst enemy."
However, Friend was also frustrated with the speed of the breakdown.
"Just before the intercept, that ruck ball was six seconds, that was not our fault .. a body lying in the way. Why is that not a penalty? Should be a penalty. We happen to play out of that, but in that six seconds they have managed to get their defensive line sorted, and come up with the intercept, so we have to be smarter with that.
"That is my biggest frustration with the game of rugby at the moment. You need to preserve time and space for the team with the football. If you are good enough as the defending team to get it legally, then get it legally. Slowing down the ball there to create time to get the defensive line set, then you are going to keep running at brick walls and I feel like that is what we are doing at the moment."
Connacht had arrived in Gloucester with high hopes of claiming a first win over the West Country side in six outings. They kept pace in the first half and took a 10-7 lead, but any hopes dissipated in a second half which was controlled for the most part by Johan Ackermann's Gloucester.
“ We worked so hard, incredibly hard. I'm so proud of that effort, but it's our execution when it matters. We are gifting too much ball to the opposition and that's really frustrating. We need to look after that footy and put pressure on the opposition rather than ourselves," Friend says.
John Porch's opening try was a positive for Connacht - the Aussie Sevens player taking over at fullback in the absence of Matt Healy.
“That's his first time playing full-back in probably four years. With every game he plays he gets better. He's an instinctive footballer and he gives you everything he has got."
It was always going to be a testing battle at Kingsholm particularly up front where Mostert, and fellow South Africans Gerbrandt Grobler and Ruam Ackermann provided huge experience, but in an error-ridden game, Connacht were the worst offenders, particularly as the game progressed.
Gloucester scrumhalf Josh Simpson provided his side with momentum from a clever chip over the top, and it paved the way for the game's opening try two minutes later when fullback Tom Marshall took advantage of a stretched cover to touch down, with outhalf Danny Cipriani converting for a 7-0 lead.However, Connacht made their first foray into the Gloucester 22 count after stealing a line-out. Bundee Aki made his presence count, taking three players out, before Caolin Blade found Jack Carty, who produced the perfect pass over the top of the closing cover to Porch, who broke from the 22 to reply with a Connacht try four minutes later. Carty added the extras.
Connacht enjoyed territorial control, Carty keeping the home side pinned in that opening half, while also posting a penalty for the 7-10 lead after 17 minutes.
Tom McCartney and Finlay Bealham were influential, while Aki saved a near certain try with his trademark work at the breakdown but the turning point came when Danny Cipirani intercepted a pass from Carty and the supporting Louis Rees-Zammit scored - Cipriani converting for a 14-10 lead.
Two penalties conceded by Connacht, a yellow card for Godwin, and two near-tries for Gloucester put Connacht under all sorts of pressure before fullback Tom Marshall took advantage of the extra man to bag his second try for a 19-10 lead. Minutes later Jake Polledri burst through from a line-out untouched, and the Gloucester shed was singing as Cipriani added the extras to extend the lead to 26-10.
Connacht staged a late rally from which Quinn Roux scored, but it was no consolation in what was another frustrating outing in England.
Yet, Friend remains confident his side will make that breakthrough.
“We will get there. We will do it," he says.
"This is just another occasion that we are walking away without the win and we will keep our belief and get there."
Saturday will be an ideal time.
Yellow cards : Connacht, K Godwin; Gloucester, B Twelvtrees
Gloucester: T Marshall, L Rees-Zammit, C Harris, M Atkinson, O Thorley, D Cipriani, J Simpson, V Rapava-Ruskin, F Marais, F Balmain,G Grobler, F Mostert, R Ackermann, J Polledri, B Morgan (cpt ). Replacements, T Gleave. K Hohneck, J Ford-Robinson, L Ludlow for Ackermann, and A Craig for Mostert (both 65m ), C Braley for Simpson (66m ), B Twelvetrees for Harris (70m ), M Banahan for Cipriani and T Gleave for Marais (both 72 ), J Ford-Robinson for Ruskin (73 ).
Connacht : J Porch, N Adeolokun, B Aki, P Robb, K Godwin, J Carty, C Blade, D Buckley, T McCartney, F Bealham, J Maksymiw, Q Roux, E Masterson, C Fainga'a, J Butler (cpt ). Replacements, D Robertson-McCoy for Bealham and U Dillane for Maksyimiw (both 54m ), R Copeland for Fainga'a (27m ), S Kerins, C Fitzgerald for Carty (51m ), J Murphy for McCartney and S Kerins for Blade (both 65 ), T Daly for Ronn (66m ).
Referee : Pascal Gauzère (France )