Opportunity knocks for Connacht to reach big stage
Published 21/05/2016 | 02:30
It has been a season of rapid progress and huge highs for Connacht. Today they get to write their own ending.
A fairytale finish at Murrayfield is on the table. A first professional final and a shot at silverware that no one would have predicted at the start of the campaign. Beat Glasgow Warriors and they are 80 minutes from history.
All year, they have broken down historic barriers. Victories over provincial rivals and a record high league finish and points total; all achieved by playing the game the right way. No matter what happens in Galway tonight, they will reflect on the campaign with pride.
Yet, Pat Lam must recognise that semi-finals don't come around often for teams like Connacht and, for all the laudable work that has gone into their four-year plan for the future, they cannot turn down this opportunity lightly.
The champions stand between them and Edinburgh. So too does the weather forecast for this evening with wind and rain due to sweep in from the Atlantic to add to the fun.
It means that, for the second time in three weeks, the two most attractive teams in the league won't get the conditions to play their natural game. Connacht emerged victorious on the final day of the regular season and stood up to all the Scots threw at them, yet it allowed their visitors a chance to size them up.
Gregor Townsend and his team arrive back in Galway fully aware of everything the Sportsground has to offer. They've experienced the dressing-rooms and soaked up all a sell-out crowd can throw at them.
They have tasted defeat at this venue and know that no team has won an away play-off match in the short history of this tournament, but like Connacht they have been breaking down barriers for some time now and will have little fear of their surrounds.
Both sides will have learnt from their last outing. In the home side's case, it helped to boost an already steely self-belief that has been generated during a season of firsts.
There has been much talk about breaking history and Lam's side have torn down traditional barriers to their success throughout this campaign.
Perhaps the most telling stat that they will draw on is the one that says they lost just once in Galway this year. The venue sold out within hours of tickets going on sale and the Clan Terrace will be in full voice. It is such a shame that the weather will turn against these teams yet again, because they both play the game the right way and have the capacity to go toe to toe.
Connacht will know that Scotland out-half Finn Russell is unlikely to play as badly as he did on his last visit when he sent two kickable penalties wide and kicked a penalty to touch dead, but equally Lam will hope that they'll have learnt not to give the brilliant Leone Nakarawa any space with which to work his magic.
The Fijian is outstanding, but he is also the Glaswegians' key source of go-forward ball and as the last game went on the home side began to double-up to prevent his offloads and stopped the champions at source.
Referee Marius Mitrea will have a big say and the tournament organisers will hope it's not a controversial one considering World Cup and Champions Cup final referee Nigel Owens is confined to the touchlines. The semi-final deserves the best officials, but the best official is holding a flag.
Lam doesn't want his team to focus on the referee, however, and says their ability to block the man in the middle out has been critical to their success.
"We realised that there was too much focus on the referees, instead of ourselves," the Samoan said. "Everyone was having a crack at each other and the referee, and no decisions ever change.
"The pleasing thing I've got in all the feedback from referees after the games is that we're night and day from where we were at the beginning of the year. The boys and even John [Muldoon] has improved in that area, and we just get on. If we're focused on (the ref) then we can't be better."
Discipline was a key factor when the sides last met with Sila Puafisi's red card a crucial moment. That moment of madness is unlikely to be repeated.
All season, the Westerners have spoken about their processes and then delivered a performance.
Injury has robbed them of some key performers, but they haven't allowed that as an excuse and are unlikely to start.
Instead, they will focus on their strengths. Their pack took whatever Glasgow threw at them last time and came back for more.
Ultan Dillane is a potential superstar, John Muldoon a real leader and Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw are as good a centre partership as you'll find anywhere.
Lam has recalled Eoin McKeon for added ballast, while AJ MacGinty remains at No 10 after impressing last time out. Their scrum can compete, their lineout is slick and their maul does damage. Their defence took some hear earlier on in the season, but of they get off the line they will stop Glasgow's go-forward.
This has been a historic season for Connacht. They've engineered an opportunity through their own hard work and ingenuity.
They may be on an upward curve, but home semi-finals don't come around often. Murrayfield beckons and with it a shot of silverware. It's time for the western province to finish the job and take their place.
CONNACHT - T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun, R Henshaw,
B Aki, M Healy; AJ MacGinty, K Marmion; R Loughney, T McCartney, U Dillane, A Muldowney; E McKeon, J Heenan, J Muldoon (capt). Reps: D Heffernan, JP Cooney, R Ah You, A Browne, S O'Brien, J Cooney, S O'Leary, P Robb.
GLASGOW WARRIORS - S Hogg; T Seymour, M Bennett, P Horne, S Lamont; F Russell, H Pyrgos; G Reid, F Brown, Z Fagerson; L Nakarawa, J Gray (capt); R Wilson, S Favaro, J Strauss. Reps: P MacArthur, R Grant, D Rae, T Swinson, A Ashe, G Hart, D Weir, T Naiyaravoro.
Ref - M Mitrea (Italy)
Connacht v Glasgow Warriors, Live, Sky Sports 1/TG4, 6.30