All the odds are stacked against the home side when Connacht face league leaders Glasgow Warriors tomorrow lunchtime in the Galway Sportsground. Continuing injuries have robbed Pat Lam of 13 members of his 40-strong squad - the smallest in the Pro 12 League - and when up against a Scottish team that boasts 37 players with international experience, the challenge facing Connacht is as daunting as ever.
“That’s why they [Glasgow] are in first place, and that’s why it is a massive challenge,” said Lam.
However it is nothing unusual for Connacht - except this season there is so much at stake. Although Champions Cup qualification has never been an issue until this season, Connacht still have never been in a position to challenge for a top six position, and it is a strong motivating factor.
“The odds are stacked against us, that’s why we play this game and that’s why it is exciting - at this time of the year, three games to go and so much to play for, and we are back on our own Sportsground.”
With fellow chasers Edinburgh hosting Zebre, and Scarlets playing the Dragons at the Millennium Stadium, Lam admits the odds of those two sides catching Connacht and overtaking them is strong.
“If you had to predict, it would be a Connacht loss, Edinburgh win and a Scarlets win, so if we can win, it would go against the odds. For us, it’s about preparing really well because, it will have a big impact on everything we have set out to do this season, and when there are three teams chasing for that sixth place.”
Connacht’s latest injuries could not have come at a worse time, and Lam says his injury-hit squad is right on a “knife edge”.
Still dealing with a backrow crisis, the second row has now been hit with Quinn Roux, veteran Michael Swift, and Leinster-bound Mick Kearney all sidelined, leaving Ali Muldowney and AN Other to man the line-outs.
Academy lock Ultan Dillane has stepped up in the last two games, and he is expected to join fellow youngster Eoghan Masterson, who is fulfilling big boots left by Willie Faloon and Jake Heenan in the back row, but Lam admits the situation is nearing crisis point.
“It’s tough being the smallest squad. Of our 40 full time players, we have 13 unavailable - 10 of whom are out for the rest of the season, and another three might make the last game. We are only one injury away from another crisis in the back row.”
In the backs Robbie Henshaw and Bundi Aki have had three weeks to reform the partnership that looked so promising before the Six Nations and Aki’s injury, while Tiernan O’Halloran has boosted the backline options, at fullback or the wing. With key try scorers Danie Poolman and Matt Healy, and Kieran Marmion back in action, the backline has the ability to do some damage.
Up front will be a key area where the Glasgow pack possesses both power and speed.
“They are the number one team in offloading, they score a lot of tries, they have depth, and they are well coached,” says Lam. “We have struggled with them before, they can score tries from anywhere, so we have to be right on our game. If we are not at our best, as a team and as individuals, it will be a rough day.
“All our training has been focused on trying to be sharp, looking after the ball, and being error free because the No 1 team is coming to town, and defensively, we have to be spot on.”
Another bumper crowd is expected, which Lam says plays a big part: “The crowd has been big all year, and they have responded by turning out in numbers. It certainly carries us home. With so much riding on this game, you couldn’t ask for a better place to play a game of this magnitude.”