Not only are the two top seeds, Glasgow and Connacht, already qualified and fighting for the prize of a home semi-final, but for the first time in the history of the competition, the western province have a real eye on the ultimate prize.
Connacht have secured a semi-final berth, but the motivation is massive to finish the league proper and seal their incredible rise to the top.
“It is fantastic for the entire province, let alone us as a group,” says coach Pat Lam.”There is massive motivation to get the home semi-final. We know our destiny is in our own hands.”
Bundee Aki and Matt Healy return from lay-offs, while internationals Robbie Henshaw, Kieran Marmion, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, and AJ MacGinty are all named in the starting side. Both Marmion and fullback Tiernan O’Halloran will play their 100th game for the province.
Bealham, having featured all in 28 Connacht fixtures this season, takes over at tighthead in the absence of Nathan White, while Dillane partners Grenoble-bound Aly Muldowney in the second row. Academy blindside Sean O’Brien continues in the back row, alongside Jake Heenan and captain John Muldoon.
“That we are able to get here as the 12th ranked team [in terms of internationals], but sitting in the top two with a chance to finish one, is a real credit to everyone. Rugby is a team game and everything we have done is a team effort,” says Lam.
Lam says Glasgow are the perfect opponents to prepare for the semi-finals.
“Going into play-off rugby, we couldn’t ask for a better challenge than playing the champions who are on fire at the moment. Glasgow are undefeated since February and they have threats all over the park. While there is so much at stake, we know it’s important for us is to stay focused on what has got us here.
“The key now is raising all our standards and team work to yet another level over the next few weeks. We all know what it would mean to the club and the province if we can bring a semi-final to the Sportsground for the first time. Both sides have an attacking mindset so it should be an entertaining game for all rugby fans.”