By Tadhg Peavoy
How much do Connacht want a fifth win on the trot? One can only imagine that this game will have the feel of a cup final, as Connacht battle for victory in what is one of the biggest games in their recent history.
If the Irish province can overturn Simon Easterby’s Scarlets side this afternoon, they will go level with the Welsh side on 36 points, provided they prevent their opponents recording a losing bonus point.
From there, Connacht’s chances of finishing sixth and qualifying on their own merits for the 2015 European Cup – under its mooted new qualification system – is potentially on for the first time in their history.
Admittedly, with Ulster and Ospreys away and Munster and Cardiff at home, Connacht have a tremendously difficult run-in this season.
Scarlets, with three home games against Zebre, Newport Gwent Dragons and Cardiff, and one away trip to Cardiff, have a much more attractive final quartet of fixtures.
However, the old cliché of playing each game as it comes rings true here, and if Connacht can win, then they are very much in the battle for sixth spot.
The Scarlets side they face is a strong one. Coach Easterby welcomes back Ken Owens, Rhodri Jones, Jake Ball, Rhys Priestland, Liam Williams and stand-in captain Jonathan Davies from international duty with Wales.
They are supplemented by England international Olly Barkley in midfield, a very astute signing, who adds plenty of experience to a side that has youth in several key areas, notably the wings where 20-year-old Jordan Williams and 23-year-old Kristian Phillips line-out.
Add in Phil John at loosehead, as well as Johan Snyman, Josh Turnball, John Barclay and Sione Timani and the Welsh side looks as strong as it has done all season.
They’ve lost their last two outings, but are unbeaten in three at Parc y Scarlets. What does this tell us? Even during poor form, and shorn of their internationals, they can deliver at home.
Taking all of this into account, it’s going to be a huge challenge for Connacht this Sunday afternoon. They’ve lost four in a row to the Welsh team and haven’t won in Llanelli since 2004. But head coach Pat Lam has injected a confidence and swagger into the Westerners play this season that makes one quite confident they will be in this tie come the final quarter, and if so, anything is possible.
Lam's team is unchanged, and everything they have done in the last four weeks they must repeat again. Their set-pieces must at least match Scarlets, and then Aly Muldowney, Mick Kearney, John Muldoon, Eoghan Masterson and Eoin McKeon must bring a physicality to the breakdown that the Welsh can’t live with.
At half-back, Kieran Marmion will hope to supply Dan Parks with quick ball, which the former Scotland out-half will use to ping Scarlets back in their own half. From there David McSharry and Eoin Griffin are tasked with the huge challenge of keeping Barkley and Davies under wraps and preventing them from getting go-forward ball for the back three.
In that back three, Fionn Carr, Tiernan O’Halloran and Robbie Henshaw look every bit capable of getting the better of their opposite numbers.
Another key factor will be pressure put on out-half Rhys Priestland. He had a shocker for Wales against England when the red rose’s back-row got up into his face and harried and hassled him into mistakes. Masterson needs to terrorise him today.
It promises to be a full-blooded and very tense encounter, and Connacht will certainly have the confidence needed following their recent quartet of wins. If they can make it a quintet they will equal their most successful run of results in the competition, which came back in 2002.
Lam said this week: “There is a real confidence and belief in our game and the process we need to go through.”
And therein lies the key, if the Westerners can maintain their processes they will win. However, with so many quality players in the Scarlets XV, this could be one of those days that is agonisingly close, but no cigar for the Irish side.
Verdict: Scarlets by two.