Rob Murphy looks ahead to the biggest game of Connacht's season
The tension, the anticipation, the excitement. It has all the hallmarks of a build up to an All-Ireland semi-final weekend in the west of Ireland at the moment. The scramble for tickets, the talk of injuries, the tactics debates.
Heck, there are houses in south Mayo where the merits of a 2-4-2 formation of forwards in attacking phase play is being debated over tea and digestives. Many of the Glasgow Warriors’ key players are household names now and the sentence, “you just know Gregor Townsend has a few tricks up his sleeve” have been uttered in shops and pubs from Athlone to Westport, Galway to Sligo this weekend.
What in the world is going on?
The province has gone rugby mad and that is no exaggeration. For sure, the chase for Sam or Liam will be back on the main agenda soon enough and no one is saying rugby is about to usurp the sporting pecking order but this season has done more for establishing the game in the consciousness of masses across the province than any in this long history of rugby in the west.
On Saturday at 6:27pm, Connacht will burst out through the Clan Terrace tunnel into the bearpit of noise that the Sportsground now produces. A sold out crowd of just under 8,000 with an estimated 700 Scots packed in for good measure. There’s never being a day quite like this one.
Four times in the past, Connacht have taken to the field in the Sportsground on the precipice of a monumental breakthrough. Against Edinburgh in a Celtic Cup semi final in 2001 where Mark McHugh’s penalty fell inches short, against Harlequins in the 2003 Challenge Cup semi final where Will Greenwood broke western hearts, there was a pelting from Sale a year later and a seven point heartbreaker at the hands of a dominant Toulon in 2009.
The Connacht team huddle after beating Glasgow a fortnight ago. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie
Each time, rugby fans from the west spent the week in the build up daring to contemplate the prospect of a journey to a final, Edinburgh, Cardiff, London and Marseille were the potential destinations. Flights were checked, ferries priced, holidays provisional booked. Each time, hopes were dashed. This is no different. Those same folk and many many more dare to dream.
However, this year is very different in many ways. Opportunism, favourable draws and luck all played a part in the journeys listed above. The 2016 story is built around a thriving academy producing half the squad, some carefully chosen astute acquisitions and a finely tuned system of attacking rugby has taken Europe by storm.
No less than 13 home wins from 14 games, a total of 15 Pro12 wins and a record points haul means Connacht are more than just outsiders. Pat Lam’s men are genuine contenders.
For sure, many still write them off. The Warriors arrive in Galway with the trophy still sitting neatly at their clubhouse from last season’s great triumph. With the league’s most celebrated coach, with former Connacht great Dan McFarland plotting a way through Galway to that final and with that tantalising prospect of a final just an hour up the road in their capital city.
The result two weeks ago has been looked upon as a blip in many quarters of the rugby community in Scotland, much like the bookies, the Scots expect their hugely successful professional outfit from Glasgow to deliver a much more rounded performance this time. They were confident enough to let star second row Leone Nakarawa head off to Paris last week to play 7s rugby with Fiji, that tells a tale.
Yet both sides have huge room for improvement on what we saw in that round 22 encounter. Connacht adopted a more pragmatic approach early in that game, in part due to conditions but also due to the pressure Glasgow put on them in defence. Alex Dunbar at 13 was key to that, his injury 20 minutes in deprived the Warriors of a key defensive asset and freed up space for Bundee Aki to exploit with huge results.
Connacht's Matt Healy celebrates after the win against Glasgow. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne
The Connacht scrum held firm and with Denis Buckley and Nathan White now ruled out for the remainder of the campaign, it must defy expectations once more. Ronan Loughney and Finlay Bealham will start in the front row, Tom McCartney has been in truly inspirational form at hooker but as we now know, can slot into loosehead if things go wrong. Another impact performance from Rodney Ah You on par with two weeks ago and all will be well there.
Everywhere else on the field sees Connacht close to full strength, Aj MacGinty put in a huge defensive display and carried well too, he’ll be well marshalled and might need to release the backline a half second quicker to exploit gaps out wide. The scoring power is certainly in the back three but the bench could be key too and the impact of the likes of Peter Robb, John Cooney and Sean O’Brien might prove crucial.
In the back of everyone’s mind however is the uneasy feeling that their has to be another gear in Glasgow and by 8:30pm on Saturday evening, everyone in the College Road venue is expecting to have been treated to more than a glimpse of the Warriors at their very best. What Connacht do defensively during those periods on the back foot and how they capitalise on the limited number of chances that come their way could define the fixture.
The return of Henry Pyrgos at scrum half for Glasgow is telling, if he’s fully fit he could prove vital. Zander Fagerson will slot in a tighthead, Ryan Grant is on the bench as front row cover, so resources seem strong there too but Pyrgos will be key to getting Finn Russell back in the grove at ten and taking the pressure off with goal kicks. The Warriors are in good shape.
It goes without saying that this season has been a rip roaring success for Connacht Rugby on almost every imaginable level. This squad and their management team have delivered a 29-game campaign that few would have considered even possible back in September.
So it almost comically cruel when one comes to the realisation that should Connacht lose on Saturday, the 2016 story will be bracketed in with those four tales of woe from semi-finals of years gone by.
It will be the best and most impressive tale of them all, a glorious and heroic one at that, but one with a similar ending to all that went before no matter what way you tell it. Put more simply, defeat will not undo the good work that has gone before but do not underestimate the difference one more win might make.