Connacht bandwagon to keep rolling on


If it's Saturday then it must be "the biggest game in Connacht's history." This being episode six of the weekly saga, as one of their players was moved to remark in training yesterday: "when are these biggest games in Connacht's history going to stop?" Well, there could be yet another in the European Conference quarterfinals if they win this one.

Nor is it by any means beyond the bounds of possibility. The tide seems to have shifted against Connacht for they could already be there now were it not for the oft-mentioned injury time penalty try in Nice, or Nice's 66-7 point collapse here three weeks ago. Had Nice been a mite more competitive that day, then at the very least Northampton would have to win by a 15-20 type of margin this afternoon.

As it is, with only one quarterfinal place on offer from the Conference groups, the winner takes all with the draw favouring Connacht. Thus, in a sense, they have to do it all over again. But at least the equation is clear-cut, and it could be beneficial to Connacht mentally that they don't have the luxury/distraction of being able to afford defeat by a certain margin.

"If we'd gone into the game in that situation we'd probably have been more defensive and negative," agreed Warren Gatland yesterday. "And if we do that we're in trouble."

Gatland sensed "a real buzz and intensity" during yesterday morning's work-out in Franklins Gardens, and the mood is akin to their week in France. "We've actually been playing better away from home in the last few games. We're not under the same expectation to perform. No-one's around, which is good for us."

The Connacht mentor has sought to reduce the pressure on his players by reminding them that they've exceeded expectations in any case, emphasising the desire "to enjoy themselves" today and promising a party tonight regardless of the outcome.

Mentally, Connacht are the strongest Irish side competing in Europe. Looking at Northampton, Gatland is entitled to say "there's no-one there that we're really afraid of. Even though they're bigger than us up front they're not going to really destroy us. If we play to our potential we've got a chance."

The key to it all will again be their traditional virtues of sound defence, a quick-paced rucking game and "just be accurate in everything we do."

Northampton's preparations have been relatively unhelpful. Wednesday's 32-17 defeat at Newcastle has left them with wounded limbs as well as pride. Though he has yet to finalise the Northampton line-up, Ian McGeechan yesterday ruled out leading scorer Paul Grayson and fellow Lion Tim Rodber, with Connacht expecting Nick Beale to play at full-back while the other members of their Lions' quintet, Gregor Townsend and Matt Dawson, resume their half-back partnership.

McGeechan was generous to a fault in his appraisal of Gatland (whom he has apparently coveted) and Connacht yesterday, playing down any notion of revenge five weeks on from their stunning eclipse at the Sportsground. "Connacht were good value for their win."

"They defended well, their forward play is very compact, they used the ball well and in Eric Elwood they have an international class kicker." McGeechan interprets this pool decider at the exclusion of the two French sides as a "fillip for British and Irish rugby" and adds "it's great to see Connacht coming through and not being the cinderella province any more."

The weather forecast is good. Though Northampton is first and foremost a rugby town, the expected attendance is about 4,000. Thus, despite the Sportsground result, this is perhaps indicative of the innate superiority complex English sides take into combat against Irish counterparts. This will also encourage Connacht.

Northampton are a different proposition at Franklins Gardens where they won eight of 11 league games last year (compared to only two wins on the road against the relegated due of Orrell and West Hartlepool). Given Leicester and Bath were amongst the scalps, Northampton are entitled to start favourites, yet somehow you sense the Connacht bandwagon can keep on rolling; that this mightn't be their last big day.