Connacht head to Llanelli for their penultimate away match of the Magners League with high hopes of keeping pace with Ulster in the fight for the last Irish Heineken Cup place.
Sunday’s game at Parc y Scarlets (2.05pm ) will also be a tricky assignment for Connacht. Prior to Connacht’s rescheduled fixture with Leinster, Scarlets are just a single point above Connacht on the league table and the Welsh outfit will be desperate to avoid finishing bottom for the first time in the competition’s history.
It is a far cry for the illustrious Llanelli side which claimed the title in 2003/04 and has never finished lower than sixth throughout its eight year history.
However, with their confidence at a low ebb, it could be the right time for Connacht to strike and, with Ulster facing Edinburgh, who are also still fighting for a top four spot, a victory would set up a fierce final round between the two Irish sides in the last game of the season.
Michael Bradley has stated his starting XV and approach to Sunday’s game could depend on last night’s result against Leinster, while also mindful of not putting “undue” pressure on players ahead of Connacht’s Amlin Cup semi-final on April 30. With several bench players starting last night, and with several nursing injuries, Bradley may well be forced to once again take a “who’s fit” policy to selection.
Yet a rare away victory would be a huge boost for Connacht. They overame the Scarlets by 16 - 10 at the Sportsground earlier in the season, while the Welsh outfit have suffered five successive defeats in all competitions since their 25-8 win over Ulster at Parc y Scarlets in the Magners League on March 5 - their only win in their last eight games against Irish opponents this season.
This is a winnable match for Connacht despite their appalling away record - just one of their last 34 away games in the Magners League. That was a 13-11 win against Newport Gwent Dragons in April 2008. If ever there was a time to prove their increasing maturity and ability to take control and convert their chances, then Sunday is the perfect time.
Connacht did put unncessary pressure on themselves following their 12 - 18 loss to a weakened Munster last Sunday.
Having been favourites, Connacht, who unusually had more internationals on paper in their starting XV, failed to produce the requisite hunger at the breakdown against a strong Munster pack.
"I think we probably had enough opportunities - just enough - over the full 80 minutes, especially in the last 10 minutes to pull off an unlikely victory on the basis of how we played,” said Bradley, “ But Munster on the day were better. They dominated the breakdown - 22 turnovers - you lose most games if you have 22 turnovers.
"The week before against Bourgoin we were good except a period in the second half, but Munster started off very well and put us under pressure for most of the match. In the latter half of the second half we got our act together and started winning quick ball and that's the key to our game plan at the moment.”
Munster led 11-7 at half-time having played with the wind, with Connacht’s points coming from Johnny O’Connor who finished off a well-worked first visit to the Munster 22. However when Munster grabbed the initiative after the re-start with fullback Scott Deasy scoring, it made life difficult for Connacht. No 8 George Naoupu scored in the left corner after a period of Connacht dominance, but Munster’s phyiscality prevailed.
There was good news for Connacht’s younger players with three selected on the Ireland u-20 squad for this year's IRB Junior World Championship which will take place in the Santa Fé region of Argentina in June.
Corinthians’ Denis Buckley and Eoin Griffin, and Galwegians’ Tiernan O’Halloran are named in the Irish squad which this year won the Six Nations title.
Ireland has been placed in Pool B of the Junior World Championship and the opening three games see them play France, England and host nation Argentina.