Connacht, maintaining sixth place in this season’s Guinness Pro 12 League, enter a crunch period that could well determine their European qualification hopes.
A series of four games against teams below them in the league table starts with a visit on Sunday to Wales to play the Scarlets - a team that has been nipping at Connacht’s heels throughout the season.
Having produced their best start to the league this season, coach Pat Lam says the challenge for Connacht now is to step up their performances
“We are up now against four teams that are pretty much all just below us, and we now need to kick on, starting with the Scarlets.
“Winning these games would be a great build on what we have done, but these teams below us know they have to step up and they will be even better. If we don’t lift our game, they will catch us. Don’t think what we have done is good enough, we now have to step up to another level.
“We have been in their position and everyone is desperate to win games to get up the table - this year more so with the opportunity of sixth place qualification. No doubt they are hungry.”
Connacht travel to Llanelli knowing the Scarlets have not been beaten at home in league action since the Ospreys won on St Stephen’s Day 2013; Connacht have not won in Llanelli for 11 years. Last year, however, Connacht pushed the Scarlets all the way, but were forced to settle for a 32-30 defeat, with each side scoring four tries.
“It was a cracker of game last time we were down there, but there is a lot riding on it for both teams.
“We have never done the double on Scarlets. It’s a big challenge, we know the importance of it, and we are preparing accordingly.”
Lam has tweaked training this week to factor in Sunday’s early kick off (12.45pm ), but is still waiting confirmation of Kieran Marmion’s availability from the Ireland squad.
His absence, coupled with Leinster recalling the on-loan John Cooney due to their scrumhalf injury woes, has left Connacht short at halfback.
Ian Porter, having been out of action for 10 weeks with a foot sprain, returned to training this week, while Academy player Caolin Blade is available.
Also ruled out are forwards Michael Swift, who suffered a leg fracture in the Eagles win over Ulster, and Ulster-bound Willie Faloon, who dislocated his shoulder in the victory over La Rochelle.
However openside Jake Heenan, lock Mick Kearney and fullback Tiernan O’Halloran are fit and available.
“While it is fortuitous Jake [Heenan] is back with Willie now injured, it is frustrating. Eoin McKeon has done well for us there, as well as for the Wolfhounds, but the biggest loss for us is Robbie Henshaw being away, compounded by Bundi Aki being injured. Midfield has been our big concern.”
Lam says all the matches are like cup finals now.
“ That’s the beauty of this competition, even for the ones at top. That is what you want rugby to be, something meaningful in every game. All 12 teams know this block of four games is going to have a massive impact before the Six Nations finishes.”