Do-or-die for Connacht as Lam's men make European last stand
Published 09/05/2015 | 02:30
Cannacht's season of promise comes down to 80 minutes in the rugby hinterland of Parma this afternoon where anything less than a bonus point win is unlikely to be enough for Pat Lam's side to reach their promised land.
For so long the front-runners for the final automatic European Champions Cup place, the Westerners are now in danger of finishing out of the running altogether after their late-season collapse.
Their schedule always looked treacherous and this evening's trip must have been highlighted from way out, sandwiched as it is between games against the top four.
Five points behind sixth-placed Scarlets and four adrift of Edinburgh, Lam knows that only a full house will do, with the Welsh side taking on the terrible Cardiff Blues and the Scots facing a Dragons team they routed in the Challenge Cup semi-final three weeks ago.
Both of those teams are looking up and hoping to catch Leinster, and the hope for Connacht lies in the fact that their neighbours will still have something to play for on the final weekend when they go to Murrayfield. Today is all about staying in the hunt.
"We all know how crucial this game against Zebre is. It's must-win territory if we want to keep our hopes of Champions Cup qualification alive," Lam conceded.
"While we have a good record against Zebre, we know too well not to underestimate them. They have been consistently improving as a side over the last three seasons and they are different prospect at home.
"They have their own European battle ongoing with Treviso and a lot to play for in these last two rounds.
"While our run-in is tight, all we can control is our own performance and we must ensure the win in Italy before we welcome Ospreys to the Sportsground next weekend. We are determined to finish the season on a high."
The Samoan makes just one change to the team that fell away badly against league leaders Glasgow Warriors a fortnight ago, with John Cooney replacing Kieran Marmion at scrum-half.
The on-loan Leinster player has had a slow-burner of a season at the province he'll join permanently next year, but has played well in recent weeks and will hope for good ball from a forward pack who have been solid despite recent results.
In particular, Aly Muldowney has been outstanding with ball in hand and the big second-row's battle with Italy's Quintin Geldenhuys should be fascinating.
Zebre have named a strong side in their hope of catching Treviso and qualifying for the Champions Cup themselves, but the Italians have just one win in 11 league games and have never beaten Connacht.
The weather is set to be fine, which should allow Lam to unleash his potent backline with Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw lethal off good ball, while Matt Healy's form has been excellent.
The western province's mistakes have been punished harshly in the last few weeks; this week it's their turn and they must be ruthless against an inferior team.
Zebre - D Berryman; G Venditti, M Pratichetti, G Carcia, M Visentin; L Orquera, B Leonard; M Aguero, A Manici, D Chistolini; Q Geldenhuys, V Bernabo; F Cristiano, Mauro Bergamasco (capt), A Van Schalkwyk. Reps: O Fabiani, A De Marchi, L Redolfini, A Mahu, J Sarto, G Palazzani, A Chillon, Mirco Bergamasco.
Connacht - T O'Halloran; D Poolman, R Henshaw, B Aki, M Healy; J Carty, J Cooney; D Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You; U Dillane, A Muldowney; J Muldoon (capt), E Masterson, E McKeon. Reps: D Heffernan, JP Cooney, F Bealham, A Browne, G Naoupu, K Marmion, C McKeon, D Leader.
Ref - I Davies (Wales)
Zebre v Connacht,
Live, TG4, 5.30