After a run of three successive wins, Connacht head to Newport looking for a vital victory in their hopes of finishing in position to claim a Heineken Cup spot for the first time.
Changes in the Heineken Cup format at the behest of English clubs is expected to see the top seven from the Pro 12 qualifying for Europe. However, it is expected the changes will come with the proviso that there must be one club from each of the Pro 12 countries - including Italy. As a result a team in seventh place would have to relinquish their European spot to one of the Italian sides if they finished out of the top seven (as is currently expected to be the case ).
Connacht coach Pat Lam says his squad have been forced to refocus their ambitions as they head into the next two games against Dragons and Scarlets.
“It now means we must try to get into top six because one place is going to be given to each of the four countries. As it stands you could finish seventh or sixth and still not make it,”
Lam maintains the league should be fully merit-based regardless of which nations are represented.
“We play in a competition that all 12 teams have an opportunity to win, and it should be that all 12 teams have an opportunity to get into the top seven [to qualify for Europe],” he says.
As a result Lam is targeting wins from the next two fixtures, which will be a massive task against sides with similar ambitions.
“The last series of games have put us in the frame, but we have a big run home. There is a real fight between ourselves, Edinburgh, Scarlets, Dragons and Cardiff and we are all playing each other.”
Dragons are enjoying a solid season, particularly at home, despite the recent departure of their head coach Darren Edwards.
“We have spoken this week about the challenges in Rodney Parade. They are totally different at home and have lost only once to Munster this season. If you look at their games, their line speed and contact is faster, and it is in front of a hostile crowd.”
Connacht welcome the return of Robbie Henshaw who has been involved with the Ireland Six Nations squad as the 24th man. However Lam has lost No 8 George Naoupu and Conor Gilsenan, who injured his leg in the Eagles match against Munster A. As a result Eoin Masterson remains a likely candidate for the openside, having started in Connacht’s 38-6 victory over Treviso last time out.
Lam says the scrum could be key for Connacht against a side that has struggled in this area
“Our scrum is one of the best in the competition and an area we want to make sure we continue to be strong when we face the Dragons. What you do with the set piece is crucial because they have a pretty tough defence.”
Connacht head to Wales in confident form, particularly after three wins on the trot - they have not achieved four since 2002/3. Matches between these two sides have usually been close affairs, and there is nothing to suggest anything different on Sunday.