Home bird Bradley has Connacht on edge of glory
'Sportsground Strategy' key as legacy of success is developed, says Jim Glennon
with the excitement of the Heineken Cup quarter-finals providing a memorable passage for Leinster and Munster, Connacht's qualification for the Challenge Cup semi-final remained in the relative shadows of the limelight.
On the domestic front, if it can be called that, of the Magners League, the westerners remain in their uncomfortably familiar position at the foot of the table. They have, however, rekindled the fires of their recent rivalry with Ulster for that third Irish Heineken Cup spot -- and in a big way too.
John Muldoon's men currently trail their northern brethren by five points but they have four games remaining with Ulster having just two. Interestingly, and perhaps crucially, the two sides are fixed to clash in Ravenhill on the final day of the regular season in early May, one week after the visit of Toulon to Galway, in what could well turn out to be a cliffhanging, winner-take-all finale to what has been an eventful season for both provinces.
The primary factor in Connacht's strong showing over the season has been the utter reliability of their home form. I know from personal experience over a long number of years that the Sportsground has never been an enticing prospect for any visiting team, not least Leinster who, coincidentally, are next up there on Wednesday night.
When Michael Bradley stated his intention to establish the ground as a fortress, he drew some quizzical attention from pundits and followers alike. My own view was that it was a highly pragmatic attempt at extracting maximum benefits from very limited resources. His policy of targeting home Magners League games, in conjunction with the Amlin Challenge Cup, has been an undoubted success with the Ospreys the only team to taste competitive victory in Galway this season, and that in the very first week of the season. Only the next few weeks will tell whether Connacht will reap the rewards of his wily 'Sportsground Strategy'.
Bradley's, or should it be said Eric Elwood's, team welcome Munster this evening and, as with any local provincial visitor to the venue, the home side will look to swarm all over them and create as much organised chaos as possible -- such has always been their way. What's different about the current group, however, is their capacity to exploit the mayhem by implementing their own positive and constructive game plan in its midst.
Will they win? Well, a very depleted Munster will definitely provide them with a real opportunity to follow up on last season's win in the corresponding fixture, but I'm not so sure. I would, however, back them to pick up a losing bonus point, and that is certainly more than Ulster seem capable of these days having, once again, been singularly unimpressive in their defeat in Glasgow on Friday night.
Brian McLaughlin's team have now failed to record a Magners League win since mid-January and the wagon, which was trundling along with such impressive momentum pre-Christmas, now appears to have shed its wheels in dramatic fashion, with the potential for alarming consequences as they approach their season's final destination.
The implications of the season's run-in for both provinces are stark, and particularly so for Connacht against the background of uncertainty arising from the structural review currently being carried out in relation to their future.
In the context of this week, games today, Wednesday and then having to travel to Llanelli on Friday -- three games in six days -- is a massive ask for a sparsely resourced squad and, realistically, something will have to give. Given their home record against Leinster, and their strong recent performance in the RDS when they were unlucky to come out on the losing side, I'd expect everything bar the kitchen sink to be included in the welcome for Leinster and, if necessary, sacrificing Friday's game in Wales in order to do so.
With the European champions themselves facing a trip across the channel on Friday, to Ulster's conquerors of Friday, Glasgow, it is unclear how strong a team Michael Cheika will field when he and his troops venture west; suffice to say that the resources at his disposal are the stuff of which Bradley and Elwood can only fantasise.
All in all, there is a real possibility that Connacht could have closed that gap on Ulster by Wednesday evening, leaving it all to play for in terms of that final Irish Heineken Cup spot, and setting up that finale at Ravenhill very nicely indeed.
Although Muldoon's men have yet to record an away win in the Magners League this season, Ulster's seeming inability to even buy a win recently will present Connacht with the opportunity of a lifetime and it would be difficult to back against Michael Bradley bowing out on a high note, leaving behind him a legacy of enormous long-term significance to the game in the west.
And I haven't even mentioned the upcoming visit to the greyhound track of the lavishly resourced (€16.5m annual budget) French side Toulon. Regardless of the priceless pearls of wisdom and personal experience in the possession of Felipe Contepomi and Jonny Wilkinson, nothing will prepare them for what lies in wait for them, be it from the team, their supporters, or the environment in which they have combined to repel all invaders bar one this season.