The first of a "bizarre" series of meetings between Connacht and Leinster takes place in Galway this weekend.
Saturday evening's United Rugby Championship (URC) fixture is the first for the two Irish provinces, which will be followed by European fare, home and away. Connacht captain Jarrad Butler echoes the thoughts of the province when he says the URC meeting is probably the most significant of the three in their bid to qualify for the Champions Cup next season.
“Right now we’ve put ourselves under pressure with the URC. We now have five games left, and realistically we need to win four to have a shot,” he says.
With Connacht having dropped out of the qualifying top eight to 10th place, Leinster leading the table with 50 points, followed by Ulster on 49, there is real pressure on Andy Friend's men who have struggled to find consistency this season.
"We said before we started the last block – three games ago – that as far as the URC went, we needed six from eight. We went on a good run, won the first two, then we had that last game against Edinburgh, so we've put ourselves in the position where we realistically need to win four to have a shot at the playoffs. We know that is the case, but all we can do is focus on one game at a time – and this one is the most important. Thankfully for us, it's at the Sportsground so support will be immense.
“Playing any team three times in four weeks is pretty bizarre. I haven’t been in a situation like that before, but the other two, the Champions Cup, we haven’t started to focus on those.”
Connacht have reason to be under pressure, particularly after their worst loss of the season, an unexpected 56-8 hiding from Edinburgh which Butler says was “pretty embarrassing” and had Connacht “scratching their heads”.
“We’ve put ourselves in a position like that on a couple of occasions. When we are not 100 per cent, it makes a big difference, and we do not want it to happen again and we won’t let it happen again.
“We’ve parked that game, but we take the lessons forward because it has happened too many times. When we look back and think ‘jeez, we let them dictate the game and went away from our key principles’, we don’t want to be dwelling on it, but learning those lessons.”
Butler, who recently signed a two-year contract extension to remain in Galway, having “fallen in love with the city”, says while other teams were catching up on Covid-postponed fixtures, Connacht enjoyed a week without competitive action – “a full week of good field sessions that we don’t usually get rolling into a game”, he says. “It’s put us in a good place rolling into this week.”
Both sides will be missing internationals, with Connacht's Bundee Aki, Mack Hansen and Finlay Bealham unavailable. Jack Carty and Dave Heffernan will be available, while Gavin Thornbury, who has been sidelined all season, has recovered from shoulder surgery. Still sidelined are hooker Shane Delahunt, whose season has ended following hamstring surgery, wing Alex Wootton (foot injury), prop Tietie Tuimauga (calf), and Dylan Tierney Martin (hamstring). For Leinster, Harry Byrne and Ciarán Frawley are due to return to training this week.