Tony Ward: Warriors the template as Lam's heroes aim for the sky
Published 07/05/2016 | 02:30
Connacht could hardly have a tougher final fixture as they take on Glasgow Warriors in what is effectively a shoot-out for a home semi-final.
Last week's defeat in Treviso has hit Pat Lam's side hard, both practically and psychologically. Yet even had they won in Italy, today's encounter would have been a knock-out game, akin to a quarter-final.
The importance of securing a home play-off cannot be overstated: no team has ever won a semi-final on the road.
Even with home advantage today, though, Lam's men are up against formidable opposition.
Even when Gregor Townsend's ultra-equipped squad were down in ninth place, the reigning champions were still my favourites for the title, given the fixture run-in plus the return of their international elite
Nothing has changed to alter my thinking. Does that mean today's head to head between the two most entertaining squads in the competition - by a mile - is a foregone conclusion?
Of course not, but in the search for 'total rugby the winning way' Glasgow Warriors are that much further down the track.
The revolution out west is still in the making, while in creative and finishing terms the Warriors are the real deal - albeit that they haven't managed to translate that title-winning potential into Champions Cup performance.
As a player Townsend was a free spirit and for that reason as much as any other I love the success he is enjoying in a coaching capacity now.
He preaches as he played. Of course they have their 'systems' too but Glasgow's success is based on the principle of challenging and attacking space, of offloading in or before the tackle, of supporting in numbers and more than anything in trust.
The former Scotland playmaker has trust in his players and that essential relationship is reciprocal.
For Townsend at Scotstoun in recent years, read Lam in the Sportsground now.
Glasgow winning the title when beating Munster at the Kingspan last year represented a big breakthrough for Scottish rugby.
While clearly I would like one of the three Irish sides still in the race to win it (with Connacht my preferred choice), given the manner in which the Warriors go about their business, I would have no problem whatsoever with them making it back-to-back successes.
And just as Bundee Aki has become the catalyst to team Connacht, so too Leone Nakarawa at Glasgow. His loss to Racing 92 will be felt irrespective of who comes in to replace him.
Both Aki (already Connacht's most influential overseas signing ever) and the big Fijian ignite the collective, and that takes a special type of player.
With Aki back on board today and Nakarawa playing too, anything and everything is possible. It is a mouth-watering prospect at another sold-out Sportsground occasion.
So what can we expect? Before addressing that, one quick comment on Cian Kelleher's decision to sign a two-year deal with Connacht in preference to a development contract with Leinster.
I wish him nothing but the best and may it be the first of many such developmental moves between provinces under the David Nucifora regime as alluded to by Lam in midweek.
And no I'll not mention the Robbie Henshaw transfer in the same breath!
The Warriors will be chasing a tenth straight win and in the last four matches have racked up almost 200 points. Three of those games were on the road, with two in Italy and one in Wales, where the play-off chasing Scarlets were dispatched 46-10.
Townsend has named a squad as close to full strength as doesn't matter.
Whereas the Warriors coach can afford to rotate his squad by design and on a horses for courses basis, Lam, for all the enforced changing, does not enjoy the same level of luxury.
That will come in time, of that I have little doubt, but right now Glasgow are a step ahead of every other team in the competition in terms of style and substance.
But one step at a time, and I expect all three Irish sides chasing play-off slots to make it.
I reckon Leinster will take all five points against Treviso at RDS to secure that all-important home semi-final.
I hope I am wrong but I also expect Glasgow to win in Galway to book a Scotstoun semi-final - and the final is at Murrayfield.
The degree to which the Ospreys want to give their west Wales rivals the Scarlets a leg-up will determine the extent of the challenge facing Ulster at the Liberty Stadium.
The Ospreys and indeed Edinburgh (by way of an extraordinary set of results) could pip Munster for sixth place and the final Champions Cup qualifying spot.
But Munster's destiny is in their own hands, with the '16th man' set to play its role before a potential sell-out at Thomond. Anything but a home win is unthinkable and unacceptable.
I expect Munster to succeed in their mission and if they can sort out the coaching hierarchy (anything but a fait accompli) then with the training move to Limerick and the state of the art facility at UL about to open, the only way is up.
Make no mistake, the Champions Cup needs a vibrant Munster presence every bit as much as Munster needs it.
Bearing in mind where stood Irish rugby back in November, after a damp squib of a World Cup followed by an underwhelming Champions Cup, to take all four qualification places now would be a massive achievement and a first, given Connacht's historic success through their own efforts alone.
As for 'Squeaky bum Saturday' we're going for Glasgow and Leinster to host Ulster and Connacht respectively at the penultimate stage, but I would love another trip to the Sportsground!