Time for Connacht to seize the day
Published 16/05/2015 | 02:30
The hard road is Connacht's traditional route and, yet again, the western province find themselves staring down a barrel of a gun they loaded themselves.
Defeat to the league-leading Ospreys wouldn't necessarily be a terminal result for Pat Lam's men, but it would leave them relying on Leinster yet again for European access.
Even then, they face a return to Kingsholm next Sunday to face the Gloucester side who ended their Challenge Cup run and, if they win that then the seventh-placed French side will visit Galway a week later. It's an arduous journey to the top.
Sixth for so long this season, a late-season slump was arrested against Zebre in Parma last weekend to breathe much-needed life into the Connacht charge. They'll be hoping it carries into their final home game of a memorable campaign.
Facing them are a rejuvenated Ospreys team who have dropped just five points in their last six games, a side who have only tasted defeat once to Connacht since 2008. Scarlets look out of reach in sixth, while Edinburgh will fancy their chances against an out-of-sorts Leinster side, meaning Lam's men must do the business.
In recent weeks, Connacht have done battle with some of the best sides around and looked comfortable.
The problem they have is, when they make a mistake, the good sides pounce. Cutting down on the errors is their first mission today.
Their other issue has been turning possession and territory into points. With Tom McCartney brilliant out of touch, they have had countless lineouts from which to launch attacks but have lacked the composure and patience to make it count.
It has been a frustrating period for the westerners who are severely depleted by injuries and lacking depth, but they still have plenty of quality to call on in their starting XV and the backing of a partisan crowd who will get behind them at every turn.
Up against them is an experienced team led by Lions second-row Alun-Wyn Jones and guided around the park by the excellent Wales half-backs Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar.
This is Ospreys 2.0. Gone are the fake tan and silly haircuts; now they are built on a strong work ethic and sensible game-plan. Having worked their way into such a strong position, they will want to nail down home advantage in the play-offs by finishing top of the table and will fancy securing a full house of points tonight.
"We don't allow ourselves to be distracted. All the different combinations won't matter if we don't do our job first and foremost," a determined coach Steve Tandy said.
"We have to control the areas that we can control, and not concern ourselves with whatever else happens away from the Sportsground.
"We know that we have a very tough 80 minutes ahead of us on Saturday against a very good team who have their own prize to play for. If we aren't at our best, we are well aware that we'll be in trouble."
His opposite number, Lam, had a similar message for his players.
"It's uncharted waters for Connacht to have so much to play for at this stage of the season and we're really relishing it," he said.
"Come 5.00 pm tomorrow, we will know our fate. We have no control over other results so all we can do is focus on winning at the Sportsground in front of our supporters to give ourselves the best possible chance of qualification and to finish the season on a massive high."
Darragh Leader and Danie Poolman have joined an ever-expanding injury list, meaning Fionn Carr comes in from the cold and starts on the right wing, while Kieran Marmion comes in for John Cooney and Andrew Browne joins Aly Muldowney in the second-row.
They are covered by veteran Michael Swift who could make his final appearance for the province this afternoon.
Control The 37-year-old will be hoping that his career carries on for a few more weeks yet, but Connacht need control and accuracy from Jack Carty if they are to get anything out of the game.
The young fly-half is clearly a talent, but he's been learning on the job and must show that he's taken the lessons on board today.
His job is to put his side in the right areas and release the potent centre pairing at the right times. Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw will relish the opportunity to have a go at the league's tightest defence.
If Connacht can limit their mistakes and hold their discipline, then they have a chance. But the long season has taken its toll and their recent games against the big teams are not encouraging.
Lam will hope for one last surge to keep the European dream alive for another week at least.
CONNACHT - T O'Halloran; F Carr, R Henshaw, B Aki, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You; A Browne, A Muldowney; J Muldoon (capt), E Masterson, E McKeon. Reps: D Heffernan, JP Cooney, F Bealham, M Swift, G Naoupu, J Cooney, M Nikora, S O'Leary.
OSPREYS - D Evans; H Dirksen, B Kohn, J Matavesi, E Walker; D Biggar, R Webb; N Smith, S Baldwin, D Arhip; T Arsron, AW Jones (capt); J King, J Tipuric, D Baker. Reps: S Parry, M Thomas, A Jarvis, R Thornton, D Lydiate, T Habberfield, S Davies, J Spratt.
Ref - M Mitrea (Italy)
Connacht v Ospreys,
Live, TG4.ie (online only)/S4C, 3.00