Connacht return to their home ground tomorrow night, looking to extend their strong home record when they host the visiting Scarlets (6.30pm ).
They enter the game on the back of a solid festive season, highlighted of course by their first victory over Munster in 22 years. And that display, which earned the plaudits and the points, is exactly the type of performance Connacht will be looking to replicate against the visiting Welsh outfit.
Connacht can also bank on a fervent home support, a feature which has certainly boosted their performances at the Sportsground, helping them to record three league wins from their last four at the venue. Add in the incentive to repay the Scarlets for dishing out an early season hammering, losing 45-3, and Connacht possess all the ingredients to make home advantage count.
They will need to. Half way through the season, Connacht find themselves four points adrift of Cardiff at the bottom of the league table. Yet Connacht, like Cardiff and the Dragons, have posted three wins from their nine matches - the key difference is the lack of bonus points ( and Cardiff’s draw ). The Dragons have picked up five bonus points, Connacht have none, and this failure is costing Connacht dearly. Even Ulster, who have just one more victory, are nine points ahead due to the five bonus points they have bagged.
Another telling statistic is Connacht’s lack of attacking prowess - they have garnered just 97 points, considerably below the 150 by the Dragons. And they have shipped 257 points - not helped by the three away matches to Ospreys, Cardiff, and Ulster in which they leaked more than 50 points. That is 42 more than the Dragons - the only two sides to have conceded more than 200 in the league to date.
Last weekend’s loss to Leinster was a case in point as Connacht were deserving of a bonus point at least. After succumbing to a fourth minute Trevor Hogan try, Connacht put in all the hard work to keep pace with the current league champions. Ian Keatley was once again on target as Connacht held Leinster to a 14-12 lead at the break. Two more kicks in the 51st and 63rd minutes put Connacht in front, until Rob Kearney stepped inside the cover for a 68th minute try. Admittedly Leinster did most of the attacking, but Connacht played to their strengths superbly until the referee and his touch judges failed to spot a forward pass for Luke Fitzgerald to touch down. Until then, Connacht were just a point behind at 19-18. And with 10 minutes remaining, it was not inconceivable that Connacht could have added a penalty to put their noses in front, and notched an historic double victory over Leinster this season.
Coach Michael Bradley said Connacht had a great chance to do just that but had failed to close out the game.
"It was a solid display and it deserved better, but we now need to make sure we get a result against the Scarlets."
That will not be easy, although last January Connacht recorded a 20-18 victory over the Welsh side. On that occasion an 84th-minute penalty from outhalf Andy Dunne, who is likely to be on the bench tomorrow evening, ensured the home outfit took the spoils, having led the fixture for all but a few minutes.
Tomorrow, however, the Scarlets travel with both Heineken Cup and EDF ambitions lost, and their coach Nigel Davies reckons it is time they started to concentrate on the Magners League. In fifth place, and with 22 points, they are just six behind leaders Ospreys in a tight top six shared with Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leinster, and Munster. They will also travel with a return of two wins from three matches over the Christmas period, and a host of internationals. Last weekend they overcame the Dragons 29-24, with outhalf Stephen Jones kicking five penalties and two conversions. Key men, centre Regan King and prop Phil John scored the two tries in a team laden with talent and captained by Simon Easterby.
Connacht, however, can be expected to enter the match with most of their front-line players. Ray Ofisa will continue on the openside in the absence of Johnny O’Connor, Brett Wilkinson can be expected to return to the front row alongside Sean Cronin and Robbie Morris, with Mike McCarthy and Andrew Farley in the second row. In the backs Gavin Duffy is expected to return to fullback, while Keith Matthews has recovered from the flu and is likely to partner Niva Ta’auso in the centre. Fionn Carr and Liam Bibo, Ian Keatley, and Frank Murphy can be expected to be named in what is Bradley’s strongest available starting XV.
In Stradey Park earlier this season the Scarlets hit the front fast and never relented. Connacht will need another big defensive effort to keep them at bay, while also stamping their authority early. This is a talented and dangerous Welsh outfit, but Connacht, with the home crowd behind them, have shown against both Leinster and Munster that they have the ability to put the best teams in their place.
Connacht (possible ): G Duffy, F Carr, N Ta’auso, K Matthews, L Bibo, I Keatley, F Murphy, B Wilkinson, S Cronin, R Morris, M McCarthy, A Farley, J Muldoon (cpt ), R Ofisa, C Rigney. Subs, A Flavin, R Loughney, M Swift, A Browne, A Dunne, K Campbell, M Deane/T Nathan.