Jim Glennon: Italian slip-up could prove a blessing in disguise for Connacht
The challenges, and the stakes, mount higher for Connacht and most Irish rugby eyes will remain focused on the west for the next fortnight, at least.
All season we have waited for the cracks to appear, until Friday night in Treviso; yes, in Treviso of all places, they came a cropper and while the losing bonus point gleaned from their most inept performance of the season nailed down their place in the semi-finals of the Pro12, the question is whether the defeat was anything more than a speed bump.
Injuries, and a lack of depth, have long been Connacht's scourges but this season the strength of their squad has actually been the cornerstone of their success. The ability of relatively unknown squaddies and Academy players to fill in seamlessly for absent front-liners has been a feature, illustrating just how well-coached a group it is. No player has any doubt as to what his role is in any given circumstance and the entire machine tends to function smoothly, regardless of the combination of components.
The objective in Treviso on Friday was to continue the season's steady, if at times heady, course, setting it up for a closing-week denouement at the Sportsground against reigning champions Glasgow, with the significant prize of a home semi-final at stake. Both faced Italian opposition this weekend and with the challenges posed by Treviso and Zebre seemingly wilting weekly, a pair of bonus-point wins were presumed.
Glasgow, true to recent form, hammered Zebre 70-10. Connacht, on the other hand, stumbled badly to give Treviso only their third victory in 27 games this season.
Pat Lam may well rue a selection which would appear to have seriously underestimated a home side whose place in next year's European Champions Cup hung on the result.
Jack Carty's return from injury at out-half had appeared timely and with AJ MacGinty also back to fitness, Shane O'Leary was out of the match-day squad, a better player for his recent blooding. Carty will also be better next week for this outing, in which he showed signs of ring-rust after his lengthy lay-off.
His half-back partner John Cooney struggled to impose himself behind a pack which played only in fits and starts. The scrum was a particular problem for most of the second half in which Connacht were unable to impose their well-rehearsed structure and patterns with any consistency.
Teams now know just what to expect from Connacht; Ulster managed to counter it effectively in Belfast a few weeks ago with their aggressive line-speed, but most others have failed to deal with it. This time, however, it was Connacht's own failures that had the biggest impact, rather than anything particularly positive from Treviso. Lam's expansive style is largely dependent on parity, at least, at the set-pieces.
The entire pack struggled, and not just at scrum-time. Already deprived of Denis Buckley, they seemed to lack leadership in the absence of Aly Muldowney and, particularly, skipper John Muldoon. The return from injury of Jake Heenan on the flank was a rare positive and he'll be a welcome addition in the coming weeks.
The absence of Bundee Aki, the Pro 12's outstanding player, didn't appear to faze Lam, and his willingness to pair academy players Peter Robb and Rory Parata in the centre was characteristic of his bold approach all season. Robb, with his physicality, looks capable of a regular Pro12 input, while full-back Tiernan O'Halloran, another returning from injury, will be another to benefit from the outing.
That they hit the speed bump will be only be a slight concern, as the overall challenge remains unchanged: to beat Glasgow next week for a semi-final at the Sportsground the following week. That said, and with the benefit of hindsight, Lam will know he overplayed his hand. He is entitled to one mistake, especially one that wasn't unduly costly and may yet prove a blessing in disguise.
The visit of Gregor Townsend's team will be a massive test for Connacht and the ultimate challenge in the context of what has already been their finest season.
Whatever about supporters, there isn't a team in Europe that would enjoy a trip to Galway for a semi-final. Conversely, however, many would fancy their chances of taking Connacht away from their home comforts.
Glasgow have been in superb form of late - their recent win over the Scarlets was particularly impressive - and as champions they'll be keen to secure a home last-four game.
Lam's only issue is his injury-list - Buckley has been ruled out for next week and Aki's fitness will be vital for their title prospects.
At the end of a season of reward for bold decisions,, big and small, the coach's selection for Treviso could well turn out to have been his boldest, and his best-rewarded.
Sunday Indo Sport