Connacht cannot view tomorrow night’s Magners League encounter at the Galway Sportsground (6.30pm ) against Cardiff as anything other than a must-win.
As the gap widens between Connacht and those above them on the league table, every game is becoming more critical, and few more so than a home fixture with the Welsh team immediately above them.
Connacht have a real opportunity to turn their improving attacking form into championship points, and despite a poor record against the Blues, Connacht can turn home advantage into a much-needed win.
Admittedly they slipped up against the Scarlets at home last time out when they failed to capitalise on a 14-3 lead. And two weeks ago, owning ball and territory, they spurned a golden opportunity against the Ospreys. Yet Connacht are playing solid, attractive rugby, if only they could turn it into points. Patience and control in the scoring zone is vital, while their defensive lines will need to be kept intact against a side that racked up 58 points in their earlier match in Cardiff.
Connacht do have injury problems, and resources are stretched, particularly in the backrow and front row. All remaining backrow players have been named in the squad, including Johnny O’Connor who returns from injury. However with just 25 minutes under his belt in an A game last week against Ulster - his first since December - it is unlikely coach Michael Bradley will start him. More than likely O’Connor will be used as a bench player with David Gannon joining regulars Ray Ofisa and captain John Muldoon.
The only other expected change, necessitated through the hamstring injury to centre Niva Ta’auso, is in the backline. Here either Mel Deane or Troy Nathan could be selected, but it is likely Nathan’s versatility will get the nod. He could slip into the centre alongside Keith Matthews, or into fullback with Gavin Duffy reverting to the position he occupied earlier in the season.
Elsewhere Bradley is likely to keep faith in the side that started against the Ospreys with the hopes that this time they can be more clinical in finishing the opportunities they create.
Once again it is a golden opportunity to play a side shorn of its internationals, and Cardiff will arrive without eight. Yet they have talent, experience, and internationals aplenty - not least a backrow that contains Wales Robin Sowden-Taylor, who has been released from the national side to play, former All Black Xavier Rush, and Tongan Maama Molitika. Add in another former All Black Ben Blair at fullback and fellow Kiwi, scrumhalf Jason Spice, centre Jamie Robinson, Tom James, Deiniol Jones and Scott Morgan, and Cardiff are brimming with experience.
Cardiff coach Dai Young believes his side, with or without current internationals, will win.
"The fact that we lose our internationals during the Six Nations and they don't is certainly a leveller, as they play together and train together week in week out. You win or lose tournaments with your squads, not your teams, and this match will be a test of our squad.
"We know it will be difficult and a tight game, and I certainly don't expect it to be a 58-0 victory again, but I think we have enough quality players to cause them problems and I expect us to go there and win.”
Every game for Connacht is a tough one, but having let opportunities slip against fellow Welsh province Scarlets and Ospreys, Connacht will not want, and certainly cannot afford, a third in a row. If they play like they did in Swansea two weeks ago, but remain patient in attack and more focused in defence, they could upset Cardiff’s expectations.
Cardiff: B Blair, R Mustoe, J Robinson, C Sweeney, T James, N Robinson, J Spice, R Gill,
T Rhys Thomas, G Powell, D Jones, S Morgan, M Molitika, R Sowden-Taylor, X Rush. Replacements, T Filise, G Williams, J Down, B White, R Rees, D Flannigan, C Czekaj.
Connacht squad: Backs, T Nathan, F Carr, G Duffy, K Matthews, L Bibo, I Keatley, F Murphy, C P’Loughlin, A Dunne, M Deane; Forwards, B Wilkinson, S Cronin, R Morris, A Browne, A Farley, D Gannon, R Ofisa, J Muldoon, J O’Connor, M Swift, R Lougney, C Muldoon.