Connacht welcome Scarlets to the Sportsground on Saturday with the visitors knowing that a win will all-but secure them a top-four finish in the Guinness PRO12.
Scarlets have fallen to defeat in their last two visits to the Sportsground, and will be hoping for a change in fortunes in the crucial Saturday evening clash.
What’s at stake?
The encounter is a huge game for Scarlets, who need a win to stay on course for a place in the end of season play-offs.
Wayne Pivac’s team face Ospreys on the final day of the regular season but victory in Galway would make that clash a less stressful one.
Following the 37-24 defeat to Leinster last time out, Pat Lam has made ten changes to his Connacht side in his last home league game in charge before he moves to Bristol.
Lam guided the Irish province to the Guinness PRO12 title last term, and will be hoping to secure Champions Cup qualification via the play-offs in May.
Connacht Rugby team news
Lam has made ten alterations for Connacht’s final Guinness PRO12 home game this season, and will be pleased to welcome back long-term injury absentees Darragh Leader and Cian Kelleher onto the wings.
Tiernan O’Halloran completes the back three, Tom Farrell and Eoin Griffin form a new centre partnership and Marnitz Boshoff takes over from Jack Carty at fly-half.
Caolin Blade starts at scrum-half behind a back-row formed by No.8 Eoghan Masterson, openside Jake Heenan and blindside Sean O’Brien.
James Cannon is joined in the second-row by captain Andrew Browne.
Ireland prop Finlay Bealham shifts to loosehead to allow Dominic Robertson-McCoy to start at tighthead, alongside hooker Dave Heffernan.
Scarlets team news
Top points scorer Rhys Patchell is welcomed back into the fold for the crucial clash and is partnered at half-back by Jonathan Evans.
Openside James Davies is out due to a shoulder injury but flanker Aaron Shingler does return to the back row alongside Will Boyde and Scotland No.8 John Barclay.
Wales’ Jake Ball is joined in the engine room by Tadhg Beirne and Scarlets are able to name an international front row made up of Rob Evans, Ken Owens and Samson Lee.
Hadleigh Parkes goes at 12, partnered by Jonathan Davies at outside centre.
A threatening looking back three sees Liam Williams and the prolific Steff Evans occupy the wings, with Johnny McNicholl at full-back.
Connacht head coach Lam is focusing on Champions Cup qualification in his last PRO12 game at home in charge of the side.
“With Champions Cup being our main focus, the next two games present a great opportunity to prepare for the qualification play-offs in May,” said Lam.
“It allows us to give guys coming back from long-term injuries a chance to perform against a quality Scarlets side.
“It is our last PRO12 game at home and as always, we will be looking to put in a huge effort for us and our supporters who have been fantastic all season.”
Meanwhile Scarlets head coach Wayne Pivac is expecting a tough encounter.
He said: “Connacht are certainly a dangerous side, they throw the ball around from all over the place, we’ve got to make sure that we’re up for the game defensively, there could be a lot of running in the game!
“We have to go out there and be very disciplined and make sure that we put on a display that’s worthy of a top-four place.
“We need to make sure that mentally and physically we’re right for the game. I’d like to think we’re potentially 80 minutes away from claiming a top-four berth, depending on other results.
“All the incentive is there and we have to take opportunities when they present.”
Scarlets Liam Williams, Jonathan Davies, and Ken Owens were all selected in Warren Gatland’s British & Irish Lions squad last week and will all want to put in huge performances in the battle to be named in the first XV.
Key battle: Liam Williams v Cian Kelleher
Kelleher returns from jury to take his place in Connacht’s starting line-up and comes in at the deep end against Lions selection Liam Williams.
New Zealand-bound Williams has proved he can score tries from full-back or wing, and was a real handful for defences in this year’s RBS 6 Nations.
22-year-old Kelleher has integrated back into training after the hamstring injury he picked up in December, but is capped for Ireland at u-20 level, and will be keen to make a big impression.
Scarlets’ only loss in the last nine rounds of the Guinness PRO12 was to Leinster in Dublin on 4 March, a defeat which also saw them end a four game winning run against Irish provinces.
Did you know?
Connacht’s only two home defeats to Welsh regions in the last three seasons have both been to Ospreys.
Connacht Rugby top points scorer: Jack Carty 72 Top try scorer: Niyi Adeolokun 6
Scarlets top points scorer: Rhys Patchell 107 Top try scorers: Steffan Evans 8
Overall Guinness PRO12 head to head record:
Played 27, Connacht 8 won 16, Scarlets won 18 with 1 game drawn.
At Sportsground, 7.35pm – Live on TG4 and S4C
Referee: Mike Adamson (SRU, 7th competition game)
Assistant Referees: Lloyd Linton (SRU), Helen O’Reilly (IRFU)
Citing Commissioner: Murray Whyte (IRFU)
TMO: Charles Samson (SRU)
Scarlets confirmed their place in the Guinness PRO12 top four with a fine first-half display against Connacht in Galway.
Four first-half tries saw them wrap up the game by the break, as the Welsh side produced some exhilarating rugby to down the defending champions 30-8.
Connacht tightened up in the second half and scored a try of their own, but it was not enough to prevent the Scarlets from winning their 16th game of the league campaign.
The defeat leaves Connacht in eighth ahead of their final-day visit to Munster.
Scarlets welcomed back fly-half Rhys Patchell and flanker Aaron Shingler – with Wales duo Scott Williams and Gareth Davies dropping out.
Connacht made ten changes, with Darragh Leader starting on the right wing for the first time in 18 months.
But it was the Scarlets who flew out of the blocks, with a superb move down the left-hand side resulting in full-back Johnny McNicholl bursting through to score within three minutes.
Patchell landed the conversion, and Connacht immediately knew they were up against it.
A strong line-out in the Scarlets half pushed Connacht up the field, and their pressure resulted in a successful Marnitz Boshoff penalty.
But the Scarlets are so dangerous with ball in hand and they went up the other end to score their second try minutes later.
Winger Steffan Evans made a neat dummy run, and he sprinted clear to touch down and deflate the home crowd.
Connacht powered forward, trying to find a way back into the game but the Scarlets defence remained strong – while Boshoff sent his second penalty attempt sailing wide.
And the Welsh side scored again shortly after as Evans ghosted over in the left corner, before Liam Williams secured the bonus point minutes before the break.
Connacht made some changes at half time, and they were rewarded just before the hour mark as Craig Ronaldson crossed in the left corner following multiple drives.
That instilled confidence in the hosts, as they pinned Scarlets back with some accurate kicks from hand and neat passing.
But Scarlets rounded the night off in style, as replacement DTH van der Merwe crossed for their fifth try of the night.
The Guinness PRO12 Final takes place on May 27 at Aviva Stadium, Dublin.
Fans can guarantee their place by booking their tickets via www.ticketmaster.ie
Further information: www.pro12rugby.com/final
28 Apr 2017
28 Apr 2017