Tony Ward: Best of West pushing for Ireland call
The Magners League is set for a fascinating finale. Ahead of last night's matches, all but three teams -- Ulster, Connacht and Llanelli Scarlets -- were still in with a chance of making the inaugural play-offs, with two rounds of the regular season remaining.
Not for the first time, Leinster and Munster are strong title contenders, yet it is the battle at the basement, specifically between Connacht and Ulster, that is capturing the imagination. The sub-plot is the possibility of a maiden place at the top table of European rugby for the men from the west.
For the competition's organisers, Celtic Rugby, the Ulster-Connacht tussle has provided an unexpected bonus on top of the excitement generated by the race for the play-offs -- a format which brings the Magners League in line with most other professional rugby tournaments around the world.
In their final days as a coaching combination, Michael Bradley and Eric Elwood are at the business end of a three-pronged attack on that coveted Heineken Cup spot.
Should Leinster or Munster succeed in keeping the premier trophy within these shores, Connacht would piggyback into Heineken Cup rugby for the first time.
The Westerners would of course accept that prize with open arms, but they would prefer to qualify through their own achievements, either by finishing ahead of Ulster in the Magners League or by winning the Amlin Challenge Cup.
Given the quality of teams left in European rugby's shadow event -- Toulon, Wasps and Cardiff Blues -- Connacht's fate may well be determined at Ravenhill in a fortnight's time. Much will, of course, depend on what transpires tomorrow in Edinburgh and Llanelli. Edinburgh are fighting for a play-off place, but they may be vulnerable to Ulster, who are so desperate for a win.
By contrast, Connacht travel on a high to bottom-of-the-table Scarlets, but they do so with a radically changed side. Following the midweek success over Leinster, common sense has prevailed, with Bradley rotating his squad as best he can ahead of the hectic do-or-die fortnight ahead.
On Wednesday at the Sportsground, they provided one of the great Connacht performances of recent times. There have been many surprise and welcome wins, particularly against French and Irish opposition, but there has usually been that element of surprise and 'once-off' built in to some of those winning performances.
Not this time. There is a substance, a confidence, but more than anything, a balance to Connacht now. For this, Bradley and Elwood deserve every plaudit.
How often have we seen Connacht compete up front only to lose their way behind the scrum? These days, though, the hunger at the breakdown remains in place, but the backs now have an ability to create and finish that was previously lacking.
Gavin Duffy, Fionn Carr, Sean Cronin and John Muldoon must be serious contenders for Ireland's four-game end-of-season tour, commencing with the Barbarians in Limerick in early June. Carr and Cronin, in particular, are pushing for starting berths.
I love Carr's style. Though he is a different build from Simon Geoghegan, there is that mischievous, Geoghegan-esque air of adventure about him. Ireland coach Declan Kidney has never been slow in acknowledging form by way of selection and right now Carr is THE form player in Irish rugby. He is, in modern vernacular, a genuine game-breaker.
Mention, too, of the much under-rated Frank Murphy. Muldoon, Johnny O'Connor and George Naoupu have been getting the credit they deserve in the all-action back row, while Miah Nikora and Ian Keatley have been consistent in the differing styles each brings to the pivotal out-half role. Yet, in his quiet, under-stated way, it is scrum-half Murphy who probably exerts the greatest influence on this still-developing Connacht side.
While nothing can be taken for granted, Munster should beat the Ospreys at home tonight to join Leinster in the semi-finals. Next week, of course , the big two have that little matter of trips to Spain and France respectively in search of further Heineken Cup glory.
But both provinces and their supporters will acknowledge that it is Connacht occupying the hearts and minds of most as we hit the final straight in the race for Heineken qualification.