All eyes on the prize as Connacht host Cardiff Blues
Andy Friend has made two changes with the return of Bundee Aki and flanker Paul Boyle
Bundee Aki: he returns for Connacht against the Cardiff Blues. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Connacht v Cardiff Blues, The Sportsground, Galway, Saturday, 3pm (Live on TG4 and Premier Sports)
And so it pretty much all comes down to this. Connacht stand on the threshold of qualifying for the Guinness Pro14 play-offs, and with that also securing a place in next season’s Heineken Champions Cup. The prize could hardly be bigger.
Yet it’s pretty much the same for Cardiff. Victory for them will tilt the advantage their way going into next Saturday’s final round, when another win over the Ospreys in the second of the Principality Stadium double header would leave Connacht then needing, at the very least, to beat Munster in Thomond Park.
Fourth place would mean missing out on the play-offs, and result in a one-off qualifier against the fourth-placed side in Conference B for a place in next season’s Champions Cup.
Andy Friend has made two changes, including the notable return of Bundee Aki, and also flanker Paul Boyle. Caolin Blade retains his place, with Kieran Marmion to be sprung from the bench.
Cardiff’s coach John Mulvihill has restored winger Jason Harries, hooker Ethan Lewis (for the injured Kristian Dacey) and lock George Earle, with Seb Davies moving to ‘8’ in the continuing absence of Nick Williams.
Connacht are on a good run of form having won their last three Pro14 games, albeit intermingled with that Euro defeat to Sale. While Andy Friend has been juggling resources, they are at full strength and fully focused for this season-defining game.
They filleted the Ospreys and that bonus point win over Benetton looks even better now. Even the 6-5 dogfight away to Zebre last week shows they can win pretty and ugly.
When Cardiff click they can be lethal. Against the Scarlets three weeks ago they were five tries and 38-0 up by half-time. Even before Munster pulled clear last week, they led after 47 minutes.
In Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo they have a potent midfield pair, and Tomos Williams’ support lines are as good as any scrum-half around. He, Josh Navidi and the prolific Gareth Anscombe are all on a Grand Slam high.
Cardiff are also something of a bogey side for Connacht, winning the last three meetings and leading the head-to-head by 23-6, with two matches drawn.
Needless to say, the Sportsground will be sold out again. They really do need that new stadium. Connacht may also well need to be at their best, but all the ingredients are in place for that to be the case.
CONNACHT: Tiernan O’Halloran; Darragh Leader, Tom Farrell, Bundee Aki, Matt Healy; Jack Carty, Caolin Blade; Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Dominic Robertson-McCoy; Ultan Dillane, Gavin Thornbury; Paul Boyle, Colby Fainga’a, Jarrad Butler (capt).
Replacements: Shane Delahunt, Matthew Burke, Conor Carey, James Cannon, Robin Copeland, Kieran Marmion, Tom Daly, Cian Kelleher.
CARDIFF BLUES: Matthew Morgan; Owen Lane, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo, Jason Harries; Gareth Anscombe (capt), Tomos Williams; Rhys Gill, Ethan Lewis, Dillon Lewis; George Earle, Rory Thornton; Josh Turnbull, Olly Robinson, Seb Davies.
Replacements: Liam Belcher, Rhys Carre, Dmitri Arhip, Shane Lewis-Hughes, James Botham, Lloyd Williams, Jarrod Evans, Garyn Smith.
Referee: Mike Adamson (SRU).
Forecast: Connacht to win.