Wednesday 21 February 2018

Connacht looking to make experience count against new boys Zebre

Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

WHEN they take to the field in Parma tomorrow, Connacht will be Heineken Cup veterans in comparison to their rivals.

After last season, Connacht have featured in just six Heineken Cup matches but it's still one more game than Zebre have managed in the RaboDirect Pro12.

The new Italian franchise, who replaced the now defunct Aironi, played their first competitive match since their formation on the last day of August. They were beaten out the Rodney Parade gates by the Dragons that day and life hasn't been much easier since.

They went down to tomorrow's opponents Connacht at home in their league encounter and they have managed to pick up just a single losing bonus point away to Glasgow -- meaning they now prop up the Pro12 table.

And as they share Heineken Cup Pool 3 with French heavyweights Biarritz, Connacht and Conor O'Shea's Harlequins, they are unlikely to find life in Europe any easier.

Their predecessors didn't get much joy in Europe either, save for a notable win at home to Biarritz in December 2010, something that was made all the more remarkable by the fact that the French side had reached the final of the competition the previous season. They also beat a weakened Munster side in March of this year.

But it wasn't enough to prevent Aironi's financial collapse -- the club was formed after a merger by a number of domestic Italian clubs including Viadana and Parma -- and Zebre were formed.

Viadana applied to replace Aironi as the second Italian representative along with Treviso but instead of handing the license over to another Italian club, Italian rugby's governing body, the FIR, opted to start from scratch and form their own franchise.

The name Zebre is Italian for zebra and comes from an old invitational touring team that pulled players from north-west Italy and played matches regularly in the 1970s and '80s.

The FIR retain control of the new outfit and have recruited some heavy hitters to their cause. Christian Gajan has been appointed technical director on the recommendation of Italy head coach Jacques Brunel.

The 53-year-old Frenchman previously coached Benetton Treviso from 1998 to 2000, while he also had spells with Castres and Toulouse. He will be assisted by Alessandro Troncon, the most capped Italian player of all time, while the recently retired Fabio Ongaro is on board as team manager.

The playing roster has some familiar names, with a host of Aironi players signing up with the new outfit. Marco Bortolami will skipper the side but is not expected to feature until late November due to a shoulder injury.

And while they have recruited some outsiders such as experienced Super 14 utility back Daniel Halangahu, the emphasis will be on developing home-grown players, with much of the FIR's academy and underage management operating out of Zebre's impressive Parma base.

And while the Italian national team has become increasingly competitive in recent seasons, there is a fear that the next wave of players aren't yet ready to step up, as witnessed by the decision to play flanker Mauro Bergamasco at scrum-half against England in 2009.

It's clearly the start of a long process for Italian rugby. Media interest at the official launch of the Pro12 season was sketchy at best when it came to interviews.

They'll undoubtedly take a few scalps, but Connacht and Eric Elwood will hope that they can get their second Heineken Cup win under their belts before the Italians find their rhythm.

Irish Independent

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