One had hoped for a beautiful spring day in Galway and a feast of the running rugby, which both Glasgow and Connacht delight to play.
Sadly, the forecast for this afternoon is apparently for wind and rain. So defence, discipline, security in the set scrum and lineout may be the order of the day.
Connacht aren’t quite the Guinness Pro12’s equivalent of Leicester City, because they have been improving steadily for several years, notably since Pat Lam became their coach. Nevertheless they have always been the poor relation among the Irish provinces and, for a long time, their game was limited. It was characterised by ferocious commitment and fierce pursuit of the Garry-owen launched high into the sky by, most memorably, Eric Elwood. They were sometimes regarded, or described, as a “development club”. Actually they were never that because few players moved on to Munster or Leinster.
The Irish Rugby Union never used Connacht to blood young stars serving an apprenticeship there. Incidentally, the remarkable progress made by Connacht makes one wonder how the Border Reivers might be now if the SRU hadn’t lost its nerve and scrapped the team. Connacht and the Reivers used to be much of a muchness.
Whereas Glasgow have regularly provided at least half the Scotland team, Connacht have only Robbie Henshaw who started regularly for Ireland this season. More often than not over the years there hasn’t been a single Connacht player in the Ireland XV. One shouldn’t make too much of this. Connacht are battle-hardened, and field a mixture of men from Galway and Athlone, with a fair number from New Zealand and elsewhere in the southern hemisphere.
Besides the powerful Henshaw, they have the brilliant New Zealander Bundee Aki and the Nigerian speedster Niyi Adeolokun in their three-quarter line, while the very talented scrum-half Kiernan Mannion has been capped by Ireland.
Their record this season is impressive, especially at the Galway Sports Ground, where they have lost only once in the league, a 3-10 defeat by Ulster on Boxing Day.
But they have beaten Leinster there, if only by 7-6, and for the first time ever have done the home-and-away double against Munster. Three weeks ago they conceded two tries to Munster in the first quarter of an hour and then swept them aside in a brilliant display of audacious rugby, running out 35-14 winners.
It was remarkable and, for Connacht’s supporters, exhilarating. They have collected eight bonus points, six of them for scoring four tries in a match.
Glasgow certainly won’t be taking them lightly. They’ve been looking forward to the prospect of this match for weeks now. Actually, considering that, less than three months ago, they were lying eighth in the league, with admittedly a game or two in hand of the clubs above them, it’s been a great effort to arrive in Galway top of the table.
Some have remarked that Glasgow need only to draw to secure a home semi-final. Statistically this is true, but you can’t play for a draw in rugby as you can in football. It’s always the least likely result. There have been 126 matches in the league to date – and only one ended in a draw.
Gregor Townsend’s team will probably start as favourites, even though, as Connacht fielding a weakened side discovered in Treviso, it’s always hard to win away from home. But Glasgow’s confidence should be high. They are on a nine-match winning streak, and they have far fewer injuries than they have had most of the season. This is doubtless in part because Townsend has been able to rotate his selection, and rest players who might be carrying a niggle .
Glasgow should win, whatever the conditions, simply because, while Connacht will surely match them in team-spirit, they simply have more top-quality players, three of whom – Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and Leone Nakarawa – are touched with genius.
There is perhaps some worry about the set scrum, which has sometimes creaked this season. Of course, much as always depends on how the referee chooses to police the scrum, and which prop he selects as the villain of the day.
Sadly, one has to admit that, with the usual interpretation of today’s ridiculous scrum laws, being under pressure in the set is likely to cost you points, and often the match; and this is all the more the case in wet weather when there are more spilled passes and therefore more scrums.
Another reason, of course, for hoping that the forecast is wrong and Spring sunshine comes to a windless Sports Ground.
Theoretically, both Glasgow and Connacht could get a home semi-final, since they stand first and second in the league.
Yet it’s all but certain that one of them will have to travel,for it’s scarcely conceivable that Leinster, currently one point behind Connacht, won’t beat Treviso in Dublin. The fourth place is between Ulster, who play the Ospreys in Swansea, and the Scarlets, who go to Limerick. Anybody’s guess.