Saturday 21 October 2017

Connacht's top-six hopes could hinge on Scarlets clash

Whoever wins this game can kick on - and Connacht are in a better place

Matt Healy successfully scores a try for Connacht (Sportsfile)
Matt Healy successfully scores a try for Connacht (Sportsfile)
Dave McSharry is a quality option in the centre despite Connacht's absentees

Johnny O'Connor

Any time you can start off the Six Nations with an away win, it's a good result. If Connacht can do the same this weekend in Wales it would be a great boost.

It is a massive weekend for both the province and Joe Schmidt's side. A win for Ireland at home to France will be a huge lift for everyone

The last time Scarlets were the opposition the stakes were the same. This could be the game that decides whether or not Connacht can take that sixth place in the Pro12.

Away wins are always precious, but the chance to take points from your nearest rival and deliver a sucker punch to their confidence levels doesn't come around too often.

This one has to be taken, it's as simple as that.

To focus on the international scene first, I thought the game against Italy was pretty boring -Ireland didn't create many chances at all; they seemed happy enough to grind out the points and take the couple of chances that came their way.

I was very impressed with Ian Keatley. I assumed that Ian Madigan would be given the chance to start in Rome, but Keatley delivered in spades for Schmidt.

All you ask for is your fly-half to kick his goals, play the territorial game when needed, and keep the backs ticking. He did all three and fair play to him for taking his chance when he got it.

For the most part Ireland kept it tight and continuously trucked the ball up with the forwards, but often when the ball made its way out to the backs there seemed to be an error.

In the first half there was one or two knock-ons near the try-line.

Their game-plan was to keep it tight, grind them down and take the points, and to be fair they played more ball as Italy fatigued.

There are no bonus points on offer in the Six Nations so why should they do any more than they need to?

Apart from that one handling error, Robbie Henshaw had a pretty good game. None of the backs really stood out, but he defended well and certainly got his tackles in.

Expectations

I saw a stat that he made 14 tackles and 14 carries, Robbie did very well and has a huge part to play against the French tomorrow, but the expectations on him are sky high now.

While Pat Lam will have to plan without the injured Bundee Aki and Henshaw, centre is one position that Connacht are well able to fill gaps.

Dave McSharry is a quality player, if he's fit Craig Ronaldson will probably feature too, while Danie Poolman is also a top-class operator.

On the other hand, Scarlets will be hugely weakened as a result of the international games.

Last week they had four guys involved in the Wales matchday 23 and when you lose guys like tighthead Samson Lee, second-row Jake Ball, fly-half Rhys Priestland and full-back Liam Williams it is hard to plug those key positions.

Steve Shingler is a good replacement for Priestland, but they'll miss their regular No 10 and the calming influence he brings.

I am less fearful about this game than I was a couple of months ago. It is a big, big point in the season for both sides but anything can happen.

A win for either side will put them on a great road for the rest of the year.

It's always tough to go to Wales and win, but I think Connacht are the better team.

Connacht have the stronger, more skilful 23, and the in-form players at the moment.

The boys will be fresh after having a week off - Scarlets got hammered 38-3 by Sale in the LV Cup last week - so the omens are good.

Connacht are in a better position going into this game than the Scarlets.

What I admire about them this year is that they have a philosophy on how they play their game.

They carry themselves in a real professional way in order to get results.

Everybody seems to be buying into it in the camp.

Connacht are on the cusp of having a pretty big season and with a win on Sunday, who knows how far they can go?

Irish Independent

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