Gloucester v Connacht, Kinghsolm, kick-off 15:30
The route to the Champions Cup for Connacht is a hard one from here on in.
Today’s play-off qualifier against Gloucester away will be followed – if they can claim a win atKingsholm – with a home tie against the seventh-placed team in the Top 14, Bordeaux, in the play-off final.
Not claiming a top-six spot and automatic qualification was always going to lead to this two-match mini cup competition of its own. And the desire to finish top six next season to avoid this scenario again will once more be paramount for Connacht.
For now they’re in it though. Pat Lam makes just two changes to the team that narrowly lost out to Ospreys in the last game of the regular season with John Cooney in at scrum-half and George Naoupu brought into the second row.
Alongside them Connacht’s star men all line out: Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Fionn Carr and John Muldoon are all in the first XV.
The bad news is that Gloucester name a team vastly altered - and improved - to the one that lined out against Bath last week. Only three starters from that match are in the XV this weekend.
Seven internationals are brought back into the side in the shape of Charlie Sharples, Jonny May, James Hook, Greig Laidlaw, Richard Hibbard, John Afoa and Tom Palmer. Add in to that European debut-making flanker Dan Thomas and the Cherry and Whites have a side packed with experience and youth.
Their back line is a wonderful blend of directness and creativity, with Laidlaw and Hook pulling the strings for the power of Twelvetrees and Bill Meakes to exploit.
On the flank May is the finisher within the side and is hugely dangerous given time and space in open country.
The pack is laid on the solid foundation of a superb front row of Nick Wood, Hibbard and Afoa, with Palmer anchoring the team in the second row.
Connacht will get little change in that front five, but they will feel they can perhaps gain an upper hand in the back row, edging the breakdown battle and having a little bit more than their opponents in the loose play around the fringes. If they can do that it will give Aki and Henshaw the time and space to give direct go-forward ball to the backline.
However, given Gloucester’s freshness through their rotation policy last week, they will have an added impetus stamina-wise, which could make all the difference. Indeed, Connacht started slowly in their Challenge Cup quarter-final defeat to the same opposition, giving up a 14-0 half-time deficit, which they couldn’t claw back, losing on a 14-7 scoreline.
The same was true of their defeat to Ospreys last week as they went in 24-down at half-time, before pulling the tie back to 24-20.
A similar slow start today and the game will be open and shut by half-time. And even if they do manage parity for the first 60 minutes, on paper, it’s hard not to see the quality of this Gloucester side, buoyed by the desire to play top-tier European rugby next season, doing enough to get the win.
Gloucester: Charlie Sharples; Jonny May, Bill Meakes, Billy Twelvetrees (captain), Henry Purdy; James Hook, Greig Laidlaw; Nick Wood, Richard Hibbard, John Afoa; Tom Savage, Tom Palmer; Jacob Rowan, Dan Thomas, Ross Moriarty.
Replacements: Darren Dawidiuk, Yann Thomas, Shaun Knight, Elliott Stooke, Lewis Ludlow, Dan Robson, Billy Burns, Rob Cook.
Connacht: Tiernan O'Halloran; Fionn Carr, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Matt Healy; Jack Carty; John Cooney; Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney, Rodney Ah You, George Naoupu, Aly Muldowney, John Muldoon (captain), Eoghan Masterson, Eoin McKeon.
Replacements: Dave Heffernan, JP Cooney, Finlay Bealham, Andrew Browne, James Connolly, Ian Porter, Miah Nikora, Shane O'Leary.
Verdict: Gloucester to win by ten.