Tuesday 25 October 2016

Connacht's breakout season deserves dream finish

Published 07/05/2016 | 02:30

Connacht's Tiernan O'Halloran (SPORTSFILE)
Connacht's Tiernan O'Halloran (SPORTSFILE)

All season, Connacht have been making other provinces look bad and, whatever happens in the next couple of weeks, they will reflect on the 2015/16 season with pride.

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Yet, having worked so hard to put themselves into a position where victory at home over Glasgow Warriors would leave them with a home semi-final after a record-breaking campaign, it would be a real shame not to kick on and claim the league title.

Pat Lam's men have consistently been in the top four all season, taking advantage of the small number of players involved at the World Cup to build up a head of steam early on, while also generating continuity that saw them become the most entertaining team to watch in the league.

It helped that they could rest players during the Challenge Cup group stages, while they again made hay during the Six Nations despite their increased international involvement.

Yet, there can be no taking away from Lam's achievement this year.

His injury list is rarely anything less than horrendous, while Robbie Henshaw has more often than not been unavailable for selection.

Yet, while others complain, the former Samoa captain just asks the next man to step up and, time after time, the likes of James Connolly, Sean O'Brien and Shane O'Leary have done just that.

In Bundee Aki, Connacht have had the most effective player in the league this season and the 26-year-old deserves to win the Guinness Pro12 Player of the Year award tomorrow for his efforts.

The centre has been the star attraction, but he's had an excellent supporting cast. Matt Healy's nine tries have been a help, while Tiernan O'Halloran and Kieran Marmion have both had strong seasons.

Up front, Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney, Finlay Bealham and Nathan White have had excellent campaigns, Ultan Dillane has been a revelation, while John Muldoon has been outstanding at times.

Everyone has bought into Lam's full-court game-plan, with the men in green ready to attack from anywhere, so confident in their own skills that they will back themselves in every scenario.

For all the talk of growth, however, this is an opportunity that cannot be passed up easily.

Along with Henshaw, who controversially leaves for Leinster next month, the Westerners will also lose the influential Grenoble-bound Aly Muldowney, who plays a key role in linking the forwards and backs.

While there will be new faces at the Sportsground next season like Springbok out-half Marnitz Boshoff and highly-rated Leinster full-back Cian Kelleher, the added rigours of Champions Cup rugby and expected improvement of some of the Welsh regions will allow them less wriggle-room in 2016/17.

So, opportunity knocks for Connacht to reach a first final and, although it looks like they'll have to do it without the important figures of Buckley and White, they are still able to name a strong side for today's game against the Scots.

Win, and they will have lost just one home game all season ahead of a semi-final at what is likely to be a sold-out Sportsground.

And even if they come up short against the champions, they are likely to face Leinster away in the semi-finals and would have no fears in travelling east against Leo Cullen's uninspiring outfit.

"It'd be the most disappointing thing if we didn't get a win at the weekend and missed out on a home semi-final after having such a big season, it would be disappointing," O'Halloran said this week.

"On the other hand, you have to look at what we've done this season so far; it's been pretty cool to see where we came from and what we've done so far.

"So, we're not looking too much at the negatives.

"We know the level we can perform at, we know that on our day, if we perform as we can, like we do in training, against the top teams, we can beat those teams - especially in the Sportsground.

"That confidence will come into it this weekend; we've a couple of lads back from injury hopefully and it should be a huge occasion. Everyone's bouncing, ready to get a good win."

It's been a transformative year for Connacht rugby. Today's game has been sold out for a fortnight, while the sight of Kelleher turning down a Leinster deal to move west upsets the normal way of things.

They have won friends by playing such an attractive brand of the rugby and there is an excitement at the Sportsground that is so lacking these days at the RDS and Thomond Park.

This season will never be forgotten out west, yet a trophy would really cap it all off.

Connacht have worked hard to put themselves in this position. Champions Cup rugby is secure, as is a place in the semi-final.

Now, their task is to finish the job. Their season deserves a grand finale, now it's up to them to go and deliver it.

Townsend pledges big performance

The equation is simple for the top two in Galway. Win, and a prized home semi-final is yours.

And, after overcoming a slow start to the campaign, Glasgow coach Gregor Townsend insists the champions are fired up for their clash with Connacht.

Both teams are safely in the play-offs, but while the winners will play at home, the losers are likely to drop below Leinster, who should score five tries in beating Treviso.

“Connacht play an expansive style and have a good home record, so we’ll have to produce an 80-minute performance if we’re to secure a home play-off,” said Townsend.

“The players have worked extremely hard over the last few weeks and we have genuine competition for places throughout the squad. We are aware of the importance of this fixture and will be doing all we can to come back from Ireland with a win.”

Townsend has named a strong team after resting most of his big names for last weekend’s 70-10 win over Zebre.

Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg returns to the side and is joined by Tommy Seymour as well as Lee Jones in a new-look back three. Peter Horne starts at centre in place of Mark Bennett, while stand-off Finn Russell joines Ali Price at half-back.

Jonny Gray is back in at lock. Flanker Ryan Wilson and No 8 Josh Strauss are also recalled.

Connacht coach Pat Lam has named his strongest possible side, with Matt Healy back on the wing and Bundee Aki partnering Robbie Henshaw in the centre, with AJ MacGinty partnering Kieran Marmion at half-back.

Finlay Bealham returns to the front-row, with Ultan Dillane joining Aly Muldowney in the second-row.

It should be a cracking game, with the in-form champions holding the edge.

Verdict: Glasgow Warriors

CONNACHT – T O’Halloran; N Adeolokun, R Henshaw, B Aki, M Healy; AJ MacGinty, K Marmion; R Loughney, T McCartney, F Bealham; U Dillane, A Muldowney; S O’Brien, J Heenan, J Muldoon (capt). Reps: D Heffernan, JP Cooney, R Ah You, Q Roux, E McKeon, J Cooney, S O’Leary, P Robb.

GLASGOW WARRIORS – S Hogg; T Seymour, A Dunbar, P Horne, L Jones; F Russell, A Price; G Reid, F Brown, S Puafisi; L Nakarawa, J Gray (capt); R Harley, R Wilson, J Strauss. Reps: P MacArthur, J Yanuyanutawa, Z Fagerson, T Swinson, S Favaro, G Hart, M Bennett, S Lamont.

Ref – I Davies (Wales)

Connacht v Glasgow Warriors, Live, TG4, 3.00pm

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