Pressure is mounting on Connacht to secure the seasonal double over the Dragons and with it their hopes of a Heineken Cup play-off place when the two sides meet this weekend in Newport.
Six points behind the Newport/Gwent outfit, Connacht head to Wales on Sunday knowing anything other than a victory will spell the end of their seasonal ambitions for another year.
Win it, and Connacht have a real chance to maintain the pressure on the Welsh side in the fight for a Heineken Cup play-off place.
Numerically it is possible, but not only will Connacht have to win this match, next week’s home match against Ulster, and most likely the final league match of the season away to Glasgow, they must also hope the Dragons slip up. Sunday is the starting point, and thus the stakes are high for both sides.
Connacht will head to Rodney Parade with cautious optimism. They have a good record over the Dragons, claiming five of their last six meetings. Last year Connacht secured both home and away victories, and that is the target for Sunday. More recently Connacht posted their biggest league win of the season over the same opposition at the Sportsground when they grabbed a 39-17 bonus-point haul.
Of course that result ensures the Dragons will be all out for revenge, and they have the added incentive of not only staving off Connacht’s late charge, but catching Cardiff and with it the opportunity to grab an automatic Heineken Cup qualifier.
While Connacht’s record against Sunday’s opponents is strong, not so is their away record for the past three seasons. Strangely this year the margins of defeat have been sizeable, despite the team playing a well-balanced game and creating more scoring chances. While those results will not matter come Sunday, it is time Connacht put their away record right.
Coach Michael Bradley says it is crunch time for his side.
“At this stage of the season the Dragons and Glasgow away, and Ulster at home are critical to us. We put five tries on the Dragons when they visited the Sportsground and they felt it did not reflect the game so they will be looking to put the record straight. It was a poor day for them so Sunday is a very big game for both of us.”
Unfortunately Connacht will be without talismanic captain John Muldoon whose yellow card against Munster means he will be suspended for Sunday’s decider. Not only is Muldoon a “big loss” for Connacht, but Bradley must also plan without prop Robbie Morris, Mike McCarthy, and most likely Keith Matthews - all of whom would have been on the starting XV.
With so much at stake for both sides, Bradley predicts Sunday’s game will be tight - “nothing in it”, but, he says, Connacht will travel in confidence.
“It’s about creating chances and taking them and being solid in defence. We were not against Munster, we were shaky in defence and on two occasions they got through.”
However, he says, Connacht did show their capabilities when they held onto the ball, as demonstrated by their second-half try.
“For the try against Munster we held onto the ball through eight or nine phases and that is something we were not able to do at the start of the season, so we are progressing.
“It’s about taking our chances and we are aware of that, but that also comes with experience.”
Certainly outhalf Ian Keatley is one player who has progressed this season, and again against Munster he produced some superb line kicks, and opened the scoring after eight minutes witha second penalty attempt after Connacht had forced their Thomond Park opponents to concede four rapid penalties in the opening 10 minutes.
Connacht outplayed Munster in the line-outs, while their scrum, despite injuries, was solid throughout, bar the concession of a penalty which Paul Warwick converted to level the scores after 23 minutes.
However it was Munster’s class in the backline in which new Lion Keith Earls and outside centre Barry Murphy starred, that caused Connacht’s defensive lines to weaken. When Munster were awarded a free kick for a delayed Connacht throw-in, the home side capitalised with Murphy slipping through the tackle when Connacht’s defence was out of line.
After O’Gara added a penalty, Doug Howlett made it try no 2 for Munster after Murphy once again found the gap. Connacht had a real chance minutes later and could have scored had Keatley backed himself, but within minutes of the restart they opened the scoring to reduce the arrears to 20 - 10. Replacement David Gannon grabbed possession from the restart, and with good pressure and some solid recycling, Gavin Duffy’s inside pass to wing Liam Bibo created the space for Fionn Carr to touch down, with Keatley adding the extras.
Unfortunately for Connacht they could not add to their tally, and although Munster added a third try, both sides were denied a bonus point. Munster stay top; Connacht at the opossite end.