Wednesday 26 July 2017

Connacht keeping one eye on Europe

Scarlets head coach Wayne Pivac. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Scarlets head coach Wayne Pivac. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Connacht are, technically at least, still the reigning Guinness PRO12 champions until, as now looks increasingly more than likely than now, one of their Irish rivals acquires the title in Dublin next month.

But that crown is being slowly removed; tonight marks their last regular-season game at their home ground as champions, and the last with Pat Lam in charge, but they still aim to return here for the final of a play-off to determine whether the side can guarantee their Champions Cup status for incoming coach Kieran Keane.

As it stands, even though they hold the lesser qualifying rank, they seem to have an easier path to that final; away to a Premiership side as opposed to a Top 14 outfit; their approach tonight against a Scarlets side seeking to preserve their PRO12 play-off hopes seems to indicate they want to stay on that particular course.

Despite the ten changes from the side beaten by Leinster last time, key out-half Marnitz Boshoff, along with Darragh Leader and Cian Kelleher, will provide ballast for the final charge next month even if today is not an immediate priority.

"With Champions Cup being our main focus, the next two games present a great opportunity to prepare for the qualification play-offs in May," said Lam who, along with backs coach Conor McPhillips, will depart the province for Bristol this summer.

"It allows us to give guys coming back from long-term injuries a chance to perform against a quality Scarlets side.

"Tomorrow night is our last Pro12 game at home and, as always, we will be looking to put in a huge effort for us and our supporters who have been fantastic all season."

Scarlets can secure top-four status with a win and they welcome back Rhys Patchell and can afford to place two internationals on a strong bench.

Flanker James Davies is ruled out although Aaron Shingler returns to compensate.

"Last year we went out there and we were very disappointed," said Scarlets head coach Wayne Pivac.

"We have to go out there and be very disciplined and make sure that we put on a display that's worthy of a top-four place.

"I'd like to think we're potentially 80 minutes away from claiming a top-four berth, depending on other results. All the incentive is there. We have to take opportunities when they present."

Connacht's form has mirrored their seasonal hangover, only beating Edinburgh in their last four outings while Scarlets' only reverse in nine was a narrow slip to Leinster.

Lam's men have only lost twice here since September, both against their exalted Irish rivals, and in three seasons, they have only lost twice to Welsh regions; both times to Ospreys, although they have won only two of their last ten, both here, against tonight's opposition.

It should be a high-scoring cracker as both sides like to play ball but the Welsh side have the greater need for a result which may prove decisive.

Verdict: Scarlets

Connacht - T O'Halloran; D Leader, T Farrell, E Griffin, C Kelleher; M Boshoff, C Blade; F Bealham, D Heffernan, D Robertson-McCoy, J Cannon, A Browne (capt), S O'Brien, J Heenan, E Masterson. Reps: S Delahunt, D Buckley, JP Cooney, Q Roux, J Muldoon, J Cooney, C Ronaldson, D Poolman.

Scarlets - J McNicholl; L Williams, J Davies, H Parkes, S Evans; R Patchell, J Evans; R Evans, K Owens (capt), S Lee, J Ball, T Beirne, A Shingler, W Boyde, J Barclay. Reps: R Elias, W Jones, W Kruger, D Bulbring, J Macleod, G Davies, S Williams, DTH van der Merwe.

Ref - M Adamson (SRU).

Connacht v Scarlets,

Live, TG4, 7.35

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