Top four at stake for Connacht when leading Scarlets visit on Saturday

Connacht’s Danie Poolman scores in the corner against Enisei-STM to help Connacht to the European Rugby Challenge Cup quarter-finals.   Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy.

Connacht’s Danie Poolman scores in the corner against Enisei-STM to help Connacht to the European Rugby Challenge Cup quarter-finals. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy.

Connacht wrap up a tough run of 16 games on the trot this weekend with high hopes of remaining in the Guinness Pro 12 top four.

Top-of-the-table Scarlets are the visitors to the Sportsground on Saturday (3pm ), and Pat Lam will be urging his squad for one big push before they can take a well-earned break after this unprecedented four months of non-stop competitive action.

"We can see light at the end of the tunnel," says Lam. "I said at the start it was going to be a disadvantage for the smaller squads, and we have the smallest. It was going to take its toll, but we are coming out [of it], and that is why I am pleased with some of the injuries coming back. In saying that, a lot of young boys have been given opportunities, and they have really taken them."

Some of those youngsters could well be playing again, particularly with five players involved in Ireland's Six Nations' squad. Lam is preparing for Saturday's fixture with and without them - the experienced trio of Robbie Henshaw, Nathan White and Kieran Marmion least likely to be available, while youngsters Finlay Bealham and Ultan Dillane could be released.

However there has been more good news on the injury front with three players returning this week. Fit and available for selection are centre Craig Ronaldson, who injured his shoulder against Scarlets in the away fixture before the European break, hooker Shane Delahunt, who has cleared return to play protocols for concussion, and No 8 Eoin McKeon who injured his hip playing for the Eagles.

On the back of last weekend's 45-5 win over Russian visitors Enisei-STM in the final European pool fixture, Lam may not want to make too many changes to his starting XV, preferring to take that momentum into Saturday's crucial top-four fixture.

"It is well documented our main goal is to finish in the top six, but this game is about purely staying in the top four," he says.

In losing to Wayne Pivac's Scarlets three weeks ago to an injury-time penalty there was a real sense of frustration - "probably the most frustrated we have come out of a game". He does not need to remind his squad of that performance, but wants more of last Saturday's clinical display that saw Connacht overcome Enisei-STM comfortably to qualify for the last eight in the European Challenge Cup.

"We want to take that confidence and get points - on the field and on the table. We know the opposition this week will be a lot tougher. They have a lot of quality in their squad. They are the top for a reason.

"Every time we have played them the games are close - highs scoring, but close. We understand that, and if we don't prepare well, we will be in trouble.

"It has been a long stretch, these 16 games. It's a real credit to the whole squad and the organisation that we have got through to the play-offs [of Europe], and it would be a massive credit if we can get out of this 16 games in the top four."

Connacht will relish being back home for a second week in succession for this final game of the current run - which included the longest trek for any team in Europe when they hit Siberia in November. Last Saturday it was the return of the Russians to the Sportsground, and Connacht produced an eight-try blitz to secure their eighth quarter-final in 11 years. Now France beckons again for Connacht and a meeting with Bernard Jackman's Grenoble in April.

Lam is relishing the chance to see just how far his squad can go this season, and there is a big carrot - a win against Grenoble, and Connacht will host the semi-final (against either Harlequins or London Irish ).

"I was determined to get in the quarterfinals because you are playing rugby in April and May and I look forward to what this group of guys can do when we get into some nice weather," says Lam.

Despite the inconsistencies in their campaign, Connacht, led by captain John Muldoon, responded to their error-ridden defeat to Brive.

"Fair play to Mul, he won the toss and opted to go with the wind when we normally go into the wind first. He rallied the boys, and said, 'look if we are going to take this win, it's my call and we are going to have to raise the tempo, we are going have to speed the game up, and be accurate'. I think the boys responded well to him."

It was also the perfect opportunity for Connacht's four Irish squad members to have game time, particularly Robbie Henshaw and man of the match Kieran Marmion returning from injury, who were both influential in Connacht's try fest. Four were scored in a one-sided first half through fullback Tiernan O'Halloran, Matt Healy, prop Denis Buckley, and Danie Poolman to establish a 25-0 lead. Henshaw bagged the fifth immediately after the break before the Russians capitalised on their first penalty, their pack forcing their way over with flanker Orlov VItalii touching down.

It was their only score of the game, which Connacht completed with three more tries. Replacement hooker Tom McCartney crashed over in the 52nd minute, before O'Halloran sent Healy through for his second, while replacement scrumhalf Caolan Blade wrapped up the game with an eighth try at the death.

CONNACHT: T O’Halloran; D Poolman, R Henshaw, B Aki, M Healy; A MacGinty, K Marmion; D Buckley, D Heffernan, N White; U Dillane, A Muldowney; J Muldoon, J Connolly, E Masterson. Replacements: J Carty for MacGinty, T McCartney for Heffernan, F Bealham for Buckley (all 51 ), R Ah You for White (53 ), C Blade for Marmion (57 ), G Naoupu for Muldowney (59 ), S O’Brien for Muldoon (61 ), R Parata for O’Halloran (70 ).


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