Friday night could send Connacht and Munster in opposite directions
Both teams play crucial matches in the Pro1214:56 Friday 29 April 2016, 14:56 29 Apr 2016
When the Pro12 season began last September, neither Pat Lam or Anthony Foley could have imagined the paths their side's seasons would take.
Ahead of the penultimate round in the regular season, Connacht are only separated from the top of the Pro12 table by an inferior points difference to Leinster. Munster are staring down the barrel of at least a season in the Challenge Cup.
It was all supposed to be so different though. Under Foley, it was hoped Munster would return to the pinnacle of European and domestic rugby. Without a trophy since 2011, last season's Pro12 runners-up will end the season outside the playoffs in potentially their worst league position in over a decade.
On the other hand, Lam has led his side away from the slaughter and into the Champions Cup. The Galway-based side have scored more tries than any other Irish team in the Pro12 this year and may end the season as the league's top try-scorers. Long gone are the days of Connacht's forwards winning a tight game. Their backs are now a match for any team in the northern hemisphere.
On Friday night, Lam brings a relatively weakened side to Italy to face the basement-side Treviso. Ten changes are made to the team, but five points are still expected. Connacht may even go into the final weekend at the top of the table, if Leinster slip up in Belfast against Ulster.
From Connacht's pressure of playing to ensure a home playoff, Munster are at home against Edinburgh playing to ensure the team does not become Ireland's dreaded "fourth province". A loss to Edinburgh, may well set those wheels in motion, despite their fabled history.
Munster defeated Edinburgh 16-14 earlier this season in Murrayfield. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Russell Cheyne
For Anthony Foley, the equation is very simple. Munster must finish the season in sixth place. If not, a trip to Romania or Siberia could be on next Autumn's itinerary. As Connacht's trip to Krasnoyarsk proved last November, it would be a culture shock for the former European champions.
The game in Cork comes in the shadow of Rassie Erasmus being confirmed at Munster's Director of Rugby next season. Anthony Foley clearly has the best of intentions when it comes to the team, but this season has so far been a massive disappointment. How will the team react to a coach that has clearly been undermined?
Edinburgh will come to Cork without the pressure the home team will be under. Impressive in attack against Leinster earlier this month, the Scottish side know a positive result will all but book their place in next season's Champions Cup.
Such is Munster's predicament this season, their final two games come against teams who are ahead of them in the table, yet neither Edinburgh or Scarlets are in the playoff positions. That's just one of the many examples showing how far Munster have fallen this year.
If Connacht succumb to a shock loss in Italy, they should still almost certainly make the playoffs and could even host their game in Galway. Lam's men have earned themselves the opportunity to do just that and with a game to come against Glasgow next week, all eyes will be on The Sportsground for what could be a historic occasion.
Treviso and Cork lie over 2,000 kilometres apart but on Friday evening, results in both cities could lead Connacht and Munster in opposite directions.
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