Connacht have another Friday night under lights when they take on the Scarlets tomorrow night. Another wintery evening beckons at the Sportsground, but just how will it shape up?
The Irish Times’ Gerry Thornley chose his words carefully on Off The Ball this week, as he often does. Connacht-Leinster six days ago kept him “interested”, but not intrigued. It sounds about right for a score-line that read Connacht 0-10 Leinster.
It was a day for the sub-plots, with the edge of the seat only as strained as the rest of it. Heart warming rugby would’ve been just what the doctor ordered for chilly spectators.
In the end it was a grudge match, in what is perhaps the most underrated oval-ball rivalry on this island.
A worrying start to the season was substantially eased with a crucial win over misfiring Munster, who themselves steadied the ship at the weekend. And yet a -64 points difference and just a solitary win sees Connacht sit in 15th position of 16-team division.
The fixtures have not been kind, but that is not to say there hasn’t been recurring problems. Discipline in particular must be a concern of new head coach Pete Wilkins, with 15 penalties conceded last Friday.
Eight visits into the enemy’s 22 also failed to yield a single score. Disappointingly, Jack Carty declined a few shots at goal in favour of sieges on the 2021 champions’ try-line. So, the hosts came away without even a losing bonus.
It was not all negative however. Indeed, the Westerners held the majority of possession and territory on the new Sportsground surface. The pack also fronted up, with the trademark expansive game-plan curtailed by the elements.
The front-row in particular have been one of the real positives of this season, with Finlay Bealham looking comfortable in his status as Ireland’s second best tight-head.
Another bonus is the fitness and form of Gavin Thornbury, while Conor Oliver also got two poaches off the bench, as competition intensifies in the back-row. And with tomorrow evening due to be wet again, the forwards will need to provide a foothold once more.
Make no mistake about it, both sides require nothing other than victory. The Scarlets have themselves been patchy, picking up their first win of the campaign against Zebre last week.
They will be without Tongan flanker and try scorer Sam Lousi. However, with his red card culminating in a four-week ban. He joins Vaea Fifita in being suspended, with the latter sent off in defeat to Cardiff the week previously.
A front-row featuring Welsh internationals Ken Owens and Wyn Jones presents a challenge for Pete Wilkins’ and Andy Friend’s men. Should they gain scrum parity however, a weakened Scarlets’ pack will be there for the taking.
A similar level of possession and territory as last week will undoubtedly create more openings against a defence that leaked 55 points to Ulster. A hungry Jack Carty will need no reminder of that, opposite rookie out-half Sam Costelloe.
The Scarlets will aim to gain front foot ball through a powerful centre partnership of Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams, but Connacht should have enough.
Verdict: Connacht by 8
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