The curtain closes on Connacht Rugby’s season with a final Irish derby clash against Munster at Thomond Park this evening (7.05pm ). Magners League leaders Munster, unable to be overtaken, have already qualified for a home semi-final, while Connacht are in a respectable ninth place, ahead of Treviso, Glasgow, and Aironi.
This a game purely about pride. Connacht coach Eric Elwood, disappointed with their previous two losses, will want to finish what has been a constructive first season in charge on a high, while his counterpart Tony McGahan wants a similar response after Munster’s “embarrassing” loss to Harlequins in the Amlin Cup semi-final last Saturday.
Both provinces will be farewelling a number of players, including Connacht’s Sean Cronin, Ian Keatley, Fionn Carr, Jamie Hagan, Mike McComish, and Troy Nathan, while McGahan is urging “a proper send-off" to Paul Warwick, retirees Alan Quinlan and Ian Dowling, who are named in the squad, Sam Tuitupou, and Tony Buckley.
Elwood can already look back on a satisfactory season in which Connacht improved their consistency, particularly away from home, their scoring power, and their discipline, as reflected in their fifth position in the fairplay league. However he now wants Connacht to do “ justice to themselves”, reflecting the competitiveness and commitment they have discharged all season. He has underlined the importance of finishing the season in a positive manner.
“We want the lads to finish strongly - to do justice to themselves and how they have performed all year, so we need another huge effort against Munster,” he says.
Much will depend on attitude. After Munster’s poor display against Harlequins, this evening’s derby will certainly have refocussed their minds, and McGahan is likely to bring in Tomas O’Leary who returns from injury and Paul O’Connell for some much needed game time ahead of the league semi-final.
Connacht players, as a team and as individuals, still have much to prove, and they still possess the added incentive of closing the gap on Edinburgh. Should the Scots lose against Treviso, the two sides would be on level pegging, although it would not change their positions given Edinburgh’s superior scoring difference. However it would ensure that the players, management, and supporters enjoy what would be a deserved finish to an encouraging season.