Lam sticks with young guns in Euro throw of dice
Carty and Leader given vote of confidence as Connacht look to keep their Amlin hopes alive
It would have been so much easier for Pat Lam to stick to what he knows for this clash -- instead he has demonstrated his commitment to adhering to his sense of discovery.
Further European advancement beyond next weekend may be the reward for such daring.
After their more than pleasing impressions against Leinster last weekend, it is notable that the Samoan has demonstrated faith in both 21-year-old Athlone academy player Jack Carty at out-half and his even younger team-mate at full-back, local lad Darragh Leader.
That both are restricting the claims of veterans Dan Parks and Gavin Duffy says much for what Lam is seeking to achieve with this squad; presuming his side deliver the five points this week, it will be interesting to see if he sticks to his guns next week.
"This is Jack's first taste of Heineken Cup rugby and also a first start for young Darragh Leader in the competition," said Lam, who has grown frustrated with Parks' inability to spark his exciting backs.
"It's another big boost to their development as young Irish and Connacht-born players."
When Connacht visit Saracens in London, a variety of complex algorithms can combine to leave them placed for a stab at Amlin Challenge Cup rugby in the late spring, a potentially stirring rejoinder to the dreadful league form that has accompanied Lam's struggle to get his feet under the desk.
Lam is further encouraged by the return from shoulder trouble of openside Jake Heenan, which immediately doubles the effectiveness of the back-row, as it returns John Muldoon to his familiar blindside berth.
The Portumna stalwart will also captain the side this week, after Craig Clarke was ruled out with a neck injury sustained at the Sportsground last time out.
In the New Zealander's place, Andrew Browne slots into the second-row to partner Mick Kearney -- an athletic, gambolling duo who may actually be best suited to a day like this; Clarke's ruggedness will be needed in London.
In the front-row, Sligo-born hooker Sean Henry, whose last game was against Toulouse in the home Heineken Cup clash, has returned from injury to start as Connacht attempt to eradicate the stinging sensation of their late implosion against Leinster last week.
"It's no secret that we were frustrated with the manner in which we lost that game," said Lam, still reeling after what Connacht felt were a series of incorrect refereeing calls which coincided with their wilting final-quarter challenge.
"But as everyone saw, there were some positives, including the encouraging performances from our young back line. We have decided to retain this selection for the game against Zebre -- another huge challenge.
"It's also fantastic to welcome back Jake and Sean to the matchday XV. It's a long season and the last number of games have been extremely physical, taking their toll on some of our players.
"We've had to plan without Craig this week, but getting some players back from injury has meant that we have the strength in depth to make the necessary changes."
Zebre have managed to trump Connacht in terms of the Pro12, their home win in the second leg of Italian derby fare last week temporarily handing them pre-eminence in the rather ungainly basement battle.
Connacht have won all three of their meetings with Zebre in the Heineken Cup, though, including a 33-6 win away from home in Round 2 this season and hence nothing should faze them about today's return tie -- except, perhaps, their own sense of heightened expectancy, especially from the supporters.
"There's a huge sense of anticipation around this game," admitted Lam. "We're still alive in Europe, but we need to make sure we are focused this week and do everything we can to get a good win at home against Zebre.
"We are not underestimating them. They are a team that have been improving with every game and they deserved their win against Treviso last week. They'll be coming here full of confidence looking for their first ever win in the Heineken Cup.
"Looking at their videos, they should have won both games against Treviso so last week's win is a good boost for them. They also have good players and there is a big difference when Brendon Leonard plays as well."
That Leonard does not play further undermines the Italians' threat.
"They're a different challenge to Leinster," observed Kearney. And a much, much weaker one at that. No excuses for Connacht.
Connacht -- D Leader; F Carr, R Henshaw, E Griffin, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; B Wilkinson, S Henry, N White; M Kearney, A Browne; J Muldoon (capt), J Heenan, E McKeon. Reps: J Harris-Wright, D Buckley, R Ah You, M Swift, G Naoupu, P O'Donohoe, D Parks, G Duffy.
Zebre -- G Palazzani; G Toniolatti, K Ratuvou, G Garcia, D Berryman; L Orquera, Al Chillon; M Aguero, D Giazzon, D Chistolini; Q Geldenhuys (capt), G Biagi; F Ferrarini, D van Schalkwyk, S Vunisa. Reps: T D'Apice, A de Marchi, D Ryan, M Bortolami, N Cattina, R Quartaroli, R Trevisan, D Odiete.
Ref -- N Paterson (SRU).