Saturday 24 March 2018

Connacht go Zebre hunting ahead of the big game in Toulouse

Bonus point minimum requirement in Galway to keep last-eight hopes alive ahead of French trek

Connacht head coach Pat Lam Photo: Chris Fairweather/Sportsfile
Connacht head coach Pat Lam Photo: Chris Fairweather/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Easy does it today. Connacht have rarely been able to confidently put one foot in front of the other this season, without tumbling down the stairs like Harold Lloyd, but this lunchtime date should present no calamity.

For Zebre are themselves a collective of catastrophe from the best tradition of Mack Sennett studios.

Connacht must assemble their bonus by half-time at the very latest, before adding to the recommended 34-point handicap - as many tries as they can muster may be necessary for qualification.

And doing so while removing as many as their key players as early as possible ahead of next week's Toulouse trip - chiefly John Muldoon - may ensure more than a decent day's work for the Westerners.

At the very least, even if there is an upset in the other Pool 2 game today in Coventry, where heavy favourites Wasps entertain Toulouse, Connacht should still be in with a fighting chance of making the last eight next week.

Given all their desperate travails thus far, and their dismal form, Pat Lam's assessment that reaching the quarter-final would top their Pro12 exploits in 2016 is arguably accurate.

A shooting fish in a barrel exercise should infect Connacht with the requisite confidence to embark upon next week's task with a decent enough swagger; after all, they have won in Toulouse before.

All the while, Connacht still bear the brunt of a horrific injury toll which, one hopes, has alerted the smart men in the IRFU to see if there is any widespread trend one should be worried about.

A few days after declaring roundly that John Cooney did not have an immediate future as a No 10 - whatever about the prospect of becoming Ulster's new No 9 next term - Connacht have nevertheless been forced to put him at out-half against Zebre.

One suspects that even had they pitched Muldoon in as pivot, they could still manage today's task without any undue alarm.

Craig Ronaldson does recover from injury but is instead placed at inside-centre as Pat Lam makes five changes to his side.

Lewis Stevenson is drafted in to the second-row, where he will partner James Cannon, and captain Muldoon returns from injury to start at No 8.

Peter Robb, Jack Carty, Quinn Roux and Jake Heenan all miss out on the match day squad through injury while Naulia Dawai drops to the bench.

New centre Tom Farrell, who was added to the Connacht squad this week, is also named among the replacements.

"In terms of competitions and taking your eye off the ball by looking long term, that's not something that we would dabble in," said forwards coach Jimmy Duffy, tossing the necessary polite garlands Zebre's way

"You have got to stay very focused on the next task - if you don't, you miss the opportunities right in front of you. We have a tough job to do at the weekend and it's one we're solely focused on.

"I think a lot of these guys, if you follow their profile across the board they have all dabbled in a number of positions.

"You can build in contingencies, but that goes for any position in the 15. There is a job to do and people are fairly clear on their roles and they do the job that's required.

"I think if you build your game on expectations you are in trouble.

"What we have got to do first and foremost is aim to have a good training week, a good performance on the weekend and get our unit, our collective in attack and defence working the way we want it to.

"We live on a week to week basis. For us the focus has got to be the next game.

"Zebre have a lot of internationals and a few good coaches there. They have a very, very good attacking No 10 who challenges you all over the field.

"Good forwards up front, good lineout, good scrum, good attacking wings. We have got to show them the ultimate respect."

Zebre seem to be going through the motions, with rumours still swirling that they may be extinct by next season if a Rome-based franchise is introduced in their stead. Their tame submission to Leinster last week indicates their level.

Connacht's task will be to extinguish them with the minimum of fuss; otherwise, next week could be their last Champions Cup outing for some time.

Verdict: Connacht

Connacht - T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun, R Parata, C Ronaldson, M Healy, J Cooney, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, F Bealham, L Stevenson, J Cannon, S O'Brien, E McKeon, J Muldoon (capt). Reps: D Heffernan, JP Cooney, J Andress, J Connolly, N Dawai, C Blade, T Farrell, D Poolman.

Zebre - K Baker; L Greeff, E Padovani, M Bellini, G Palazzani; C Canna, M Violi; A Lovotti, C Festuccia, P Ceccarelli, G Koegelenberg, V Bernabo, M Mbanda, J Meyer, F Ruzza.

Reps: O Fabiani, A de Marchi, D Chistolini, J Furno, G Biagi, C Engelbrecht, D Minnie, S Bordoli.

Ref - T Foley (RFU).

Irish Independent

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