Connacht are underdogs for big European play-off clash against Northampton

Pat Lam who will be hoping to end his tenure as Connacht coach with success in the European Champions Cup play-offs.
Pat Lam who will be hoping to end his tenure as Connacht coach with success in the European Champions Cup play-offs.

FOUR teams are vying for the twentieth and final spot in next season’s Champions Cup in these perplexing, and seemingly needless qualifiers, over the next two weeks. While Connacht and Northampton lock horns in middle England (geographically speaking), over in Paris on Friday night, Stade Francais and Cardiff meet in the other semi final.

This really is a daft format that needs a serious rethink. Out of the the four teams left, Stade Francais are the side that are worth a place in next season’s Champions Cup as they won the Challenge Cup last weekend. That should be that really. Northampton have spent huge money and couldn’t even finish in the top half of their league, while Cardiff are celebrating are hailing their seventh place finish as huge progress, hardly a good benchmark for such a huge rugby city.

Then again, when EPCR gives Italy a guaranteed spot in the competition (secured by Treviso after piping Zebre to second last in the PRO12) it will be hard to give grief to any of the three sides not from Paris, if they manage to win two games over the next couple of weeks.

That said, it is what it is and if Connacht do manage to upset the odds and win in England this weekend, they will have a home game at the Sportsground on Friday, May 26 with a chance to secure their own place in the elite competition for a second successive season.

That scenario seems like a long shot. Pat Lam would love nothing more than to leave Galway on a major high by rescuing this otherwise wretched second half of the campaign with two wins that will live long in the annals. Problem is, his side have no form whatsoever. Three months of fairly pitiful displays and only a couple of soft wins over Edinburgh away and Zebre at home.

Embarrassing defeats at the hands of Munster, the Scarlets and Zebre still linger in the mind. Decent displays but comprehensive defeats to Glasgow and Leinster are also on the mind. The injury crisis has loomed large and key men like Tom McCartney and Quinn Roux are still unavailable, Bundee Aki’s unchecked temper has him sidelined too.

The news was better this week for others. Ultan Dillane, Matt Healy, Niyi Adeolokun and Steve Crosbie are all back training. However, a lack of game time is an issue for the quartet, so don’t expect them all to start. In the doubtful bracket, place Marnitz Boshoff (head injury), Andrew Browne (calf) and Tom Farrell (groin). So overall it could be better news for Lam and co.

For more, read this week’s Galway City Tribune.