Bradley's juggling skills face stern test
another loaves and fishes job for Michael Bradley as he heads into his third Magners League assignment in seven days at Parc y Scarlets tomorrow (2.05).
Connacht's resource issues have been well documented and with the bones of 25 players to work with, Bradley's juggling skills are being put to the test this week as he attempts to put the province in the best possible position for the final-day trip to Ravenhill.
Thus, there is considerable incentive heading over to play the Scarlets which, ordinarily, would require Bradley's strongest selection, but the situation is further complicated by the need to rest front-liners ahead of Friday's Challenge Cup semi-final at home to Touloun.
Troy Nathan is earning his wages this week as the New Zealander is the only player to start last Sunday's defeat to Munster, Wednesday night's wonderful win over Leinster and tomorrow's clash in Wales.
Nathan has come into his own in recent weeks as the westerners have hit form and has the capacity to play along the back-line. He is at 12 against the Scarlets and will have a minding role to play alongside youngster Eoin Griffin, with another youngster, former Ireland Schools player Tiernan O'Halloran, on the right wing.
Ian Keatley is at out-half outside Conor O'Loughlin, who had a big game on Wednesday, while the front-row, even without Sean Cronin, has a solid look to it as Ronan Loughney, Adrian Flavin and Robbie Morris are all streetwise performers.
As is Bernie Upton in the second-row alongside the promising Dave Nolan, while there is a welcome return for Ray Ofisa at open-side with George Naoupu, Johnny O'Connor and captain John Muldoon handed well-deserved rests.
They are facing the league's bottom side, whom Connacht leapfrogged on Wednesday, but, while the Scarlets are enduring a torrid season, they still have quality in their ranks to aid their pride-restoration exercise.
With spirits so low in this proud rugby area (the Scarlets are issuing half-hearted calls-to-arms about "laying a foundation for next season"), it sets Connacht up for a classic smash-and-grab operation and there is no shortage of incentive.
Ulster and Connacht are level in the table, but the northerners are 70 points to the good in terms of scoring differential. Everything points to a winner-takes-all clash in Ravenhill as Ulster face play-off chasing Edinburgh in Murrayfield tomorrow and, even if Connacht beat the Scarlets and Ulster lose, victory in Belfast would still be enough for Brian McLaughlin's men.
However, if Ulster manage to beat Edinburgh then Connacht would have to leave Wales with something, as a four-try bonus win at Ravenhill is not a realistic option.
Thus, with so much more to play for than their hosts, it is safe to expect the intensity levels that suit Connacht best, but the Scarlets are still able to call on players of the quality of Sean Lamont, Regan King, Jon Davies, Rhys Priestland, Matthew Rees and David Lyons and should be too powerful.
As we are wont to say when Connacht are on the road, a losing bonus point would be a tremendous achievement and never has that been truer than for tomorrow's clash.
SCARLETS -- D Evans; S Lamont, R King, J Davies A Fenby; R Priestland, M Roberts; I Thomas, M Rees, R Thomas; L Reed, D Welch; R McCusker, J Turnbull, D Lyons (Capt). Reps: P John, E Phillips, D Manu, D Day, T Knoyle, D Newton, L Williams.
CONNACHT -- L Bibo; T O'Halloran, E Griffin, T Nathan, B Tuohy; I Keatley, C O'Loughlin; R Loughney, A Flavin, R Morris; D Nolan, B Upton; A Browne, R Ofisa, M McComish. Reps: D Murphy, C Higgins, E McKeown, J O'Connor, K Campbell, M Nikora, A Wynne.
REF -- A McPherson (Scotland).
Scarlets v Connacht,
Live, tomorrow 2.05, Setanta Ireland