Connacht return to the Galway Sportsground where they face home fixtures over the next two weekends that will prove crucial in determining how their season concludes.
Glasgow Warriors are the visitors on Saturday (5.30pm ), followed by fellow Scottish outfit Edinburgh the following Friday, and if Connacht are to improve their RaboDirect Pro 12 league standing, then two wins on the trot are needed.
The Warriors, who have traditionally taken a back seat to Edinburgh, are in flying form this season. Perched in third place, some four points adrift of the Ospreys, the Warriors are enjoying one of their best league seasons.
As a result Connacht coach Eric Elwood knows they travel to Galway in confident mood.
“The Warriors are playing really well this season and credit to them they are third in the table. They are always a difficult team to play against, but on this occasion they arrive full of confidence,” he says.
While Connacht missed an opportunity last weekend away to Cardiff, Glasgow grabbed their eighth win from 14 outings with a 19 - 9 victory over the Scarlets. Fourteen points from the boot of Ruaridh Jackson coupled with a Jon Welsh try were enough to seal the victory, and Jackson will be keen to punish any indiscipline in the Connacht camp again this weekend.
A one-sided penalty count against Cardiff proved costly for Connacht last Friday evening, particularly when Elwood’s men outscored the Welsh outfit by two tries to one. And discipline will be another key area against Glasgow.
“We are expecting a very physical game. Glasgow have a great team spirit and they work extremely hard in defence so they are difficult to break down. They are honest, direct, and physical so we will have to match them in the physicality stakes, ensure our defence is watertight, and keep our discipline,” Elwood says.
Connacht will be without Ray Ofisa who was injured last weekend, which will necessitate one change to the team, but Dave McSharry is expected to pass a fitness test to line out in the centre with Kyle Tonnetti. Eoin Griffin is likely to make the bench after returning to training. Elwood has the option to move John Muldoon from the blindside as he has done before, but he could well opt for Eoghan Grace who is an true openside and has been playing well for Buccaneers in the Ulster Bank League.
Elwood says Connacht’s performance last week was “not good enough” but the next two weekends present opportunities Connacht must grab.
“We had an opportunity in Cardiff and didn’t take it, but we now have two home games which could prove crucial if we are to achieve our seasonal goals.”
Hopes were high last weekend that Connacht could repeat a famous victory in Cardiff Arms Park when 10 years ago Elwood was the hero, kicking the two winning penalties, on a miserable night. However Cardiff's Ben Blair put paid to those aspirations when kicking 17 of the home side's 22 points on a perfect night for running rugby.
The home side had taken a slender 12 - 10 lead at the break, all through Blair's boot, but Cardiff took control in the second half, forced Connacht to defend for most of the half, and took their chance to score the crucial try, despite a knock-on from Martyn Williams in the lead up.
Both sides had looked to play expansive rugby, and although Cardiff may have edged the possession stakes, they rarely threatened the Connacht defence which, once again, was well able to cope with anything the Blues offered in attack.
Connacht's front five laid the early platform with a dominant scrum, winning a second minute penalty which outhalf Niall O'Connor struck well from the 10m line to open the scoring, but it was not long before Blair replied with a simple kick in front of the posts after Connacht were penalised at the breakdown, adding a second from a similar position two minutes later.
Connacht, however, continued to attack with George Naoupu and John Muldoon making the hard yards count, and from a line-out and maul, Connacht made territorial advantage count with Niall O'Connor opting for a long looping pass to Gavin Duffy, whose quick flick enabled left wing Tiernan O'Halloran to race in from 15m for the only try of the half. O'Connor added the extras with a superb touchline kick to put Connacht into the driving seat at 10- 6.
However the breakdown caused the most concern for the Irish province as they continued to fall foul of the referee with a 7:1 penalty count and, having been held up over the line on one occasion by Connacht's defence, the Blues sensibly capitalised on the one-sided penalty tally with Blair adding three before the break to push the Blues in front.
He extended that in the 57th minute after Connacht outhalf O'Connor was a metre short with an earlier long range effort, but the home dictated the game, pinning Connacht inside their own half. The Blues reaped the reward from a counterattack, and although Williams knocked-on when punching a hole through the cover, Cardiff battled the way to the line before prop Sam Hobbs dived over for the crucial score. Blair added the conversion and from a three point lead at the break, the home side were in the driving seat, extending the lead to 22 - 10.
Connacht remained positive, particularly on the counterattack, and created opportunities through Gavin Duffy, Tiernan O'Halloran, and the dangerous Fetu Vainikolo, who always looked threatening. The best chance of the second half came from Duffy, whose break brought play into the Cardiff 22, but the opportunity was lost when McCarthy, with the line clear in front, just could not hold the pass. However it was O'Halloran who eventually got Connacht back within a bonus-point territory. Duffy instigated the opportunity with a neat chip kick out of defence, which O'Halloran grabbed, shook off a tackler, and ran nearly the length of the pitch before finding replacement scrumhalf Dave Moore with an inside pass to finish off. Jarvis missed the conversion, but it gave Connacht a valuable point.
Cardiff Blues: B Blair, R Mustoe, T James, C Laulala, C Czekaj, C Sweeney, R Rees, J Yapp, R Thomas, S Hobbs, M Paterson, P Tito(cpt ), M Molitika, M Williams, X Rush. Replacements, G Davies for Laulala (37m ), R Tyrell for Thomas (48m ), C Hill for Molitika (59m ), R Harford for Hobbs (60m ), M Cook for Yapp (67m )
Connacht Rugby: G Duffy [capt]; F Vainikolo, K Tonetti, D McSharry, T O'Halloran; N O'Connor, P O'Donohoe; B Wilkinson, A Flavin, R Loughney, M Swift, M McCarthy, J Muldoon, R Ofisa, G Naoupu. Replacements, D Gannon for Ofisa (24m ), H Fa'afili for McSharry (45m ),E Reynecke for Flavin (55m ), D Moore for O'Donohoe and M Jarvis for O'Connor (60m ), D buckley for Wilkinson and M Kearney for Naoupu (66m ).