Connacht complete their 2013/4 season with a difficult visit to Liberty Stadium on Saturday (6.30pm ) where they face an Ospreys outfit smarting from its failure to qualify for the semi-finals.
Although only pride is at stake for both sides, Connacht coach Pat Lam is preparing his injury-hit side for an Ospreys’ onslaught.
“Having lost last weekend to Zebre, they are hurting. This is their final home match of the season, so we know it is going to be difficult,” he says.
The former league champions, who have been at the forefront of Welsh rugby in recent times, boast a huge squad that includes Dan Biggar, Alun Wyn Jones and Jeff Hassler who have been named in this year’s Pro 12 Dream Team. In Biggar, the Ospreys boast the league’s top points scorer, while Hassler has scored seven tries in his first season of Pro 12 rugby.
Connacht, with a poor finish to their home campaign against Cardiff last weekend, have been hit by more injuries. Hooker Jason Harris-Wright dislocated his shoulder last weekend and is expected to require surgery which will keep him out of action for six months. Willie Faloon will also miss this week's game after the flanker picked up a hamstring strain in last Friday's captain run, while Eoin Griffin will be monitored for a shoulder injury.
Saturday’s fixture will also close the curtain on the Connacht careers of key players Gavin Duffy, Dan Parks, Frank Murphy, and the London-bound Eoin Griffin, and last weekend the Sportsground was awash with sentiment despite Connacht failing to secure a winnable Pro 12 fixture.
"I feel for the guys and for the fans because it was a great opportunity to win the game, " said coach Pat Lam, "but I believe you get what you deserve if you do not play well.
"It was one of many throughout the season we should have won. We need to nail those sorts of games and at 15 - 3 ahead, you have to make good decisions."
At 15-3 ahead it looked possible that Connacht could gain a best-place finish to the league, having - having moved from 10th to eighth place over the last three seasons.
After an early Darragh Leader penalty attempt hit the upright, Duffy's heir apparent to fullback opened the scoring on 22 minutes when the Blues were penalised at the ruck. Good work from John Muldoon at the line-out forced a penalty, and Connacht's player of the year Kieran Marmion sent through a delightful kick from a scrum which bounced perfectly for in-rushing winger Matt Healy. Outhalf Miah Nikora added the conversion for a 10-0 lead. Connacht should have added to the score the break, but Muldoon was pinged for a double movement on the line, and the Blues, who had threatened through international Alex Cuthbert in the first half, stuck a penalty to narrow the gap at the break.
Connacht immediately grabbed the initiative and, from a penalty to touch, they worked their way through the phases before Henshaw dived over from a close-in ruck for a 15 - 3 lead.
However Connacht found themselves increasingly penalised as Cardiff gained the upper hand in the scrum. Despite an early push, Cardiff had Connacht reeling and referee Neil Paterson awarded the penalty try, which Gareth Davies converted. Two minutes later Henshaw lost possession in the tackle, and from turnover ball replacement Lewis Jones raced through for a second converted effort, giving the visitors the lead for the first time.
Although Connacht gathered impetus in the last 20 minutes, they were undone by a series of penalties which resulted in two yellow cards, leading to Cardiff's third try after 68 minutes.
"We had missed some opportunities earlier, but we were totally in control," said Lam. " Then we turned the ball over at the breakdown, there were the discipline errors - little things that have been hurting our game throughout the season - and then bang, quick-fire tries. From 15 - 3 in control, in two minutes it changes. All in all, very disappointing."
Connacht: D Leader, D Poolman, R Henshaw, E Griffin, M Healy, M Nikora, K Marmion, R Loughney, J Harris-Wright, R Ah You, A Muldowney, M Kearney, J Muldoon (cpt ), C Gilsenen, E McKeon. Replacements, D Buckley for Loughney and D Parks for Nikora (50m ), D Heffernan for Harris-Wright (53m ), M Swift for Kearney and A Browne for Gilsenan (57m ), F Bealham for Ah You (60m ), G Duffy for Leader (62m ) F Murphy for Marmion (75m ).