Thursday 18 January 2018

Elwood eager to sign off on a high as O'Halloran gets taste for top table

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

CONNACHT's Heineken Cup season may almost be over but, if they can win a third match in their pool, it would demonstrate progress in their second year in the competition.

Zebre are the worst team in the competition and Eric Elwood(right) will want to sign off on European rugby on a high with a comprehensive victory.

Whether incoming coach Pat Lam will be able to take on his predecessor's legacy in next year's competition remains to be seen, with an Irish winner looking less plausible than in recent years.

After a 48-7 drubbing against pool winners Harlequins at The Stoop last weekend, Elwood is able to recall Dan Parks in a team that includes Robbie Henshaw and Dave McSharry, who are celebrating their first Ireland call-ups.

The duo are joined in the backline by 21-year-old Tiernan O'Halloran, who is reaching a significant milestone for one so young – his 50th cap with the province.

The Clifden native has been involved in previous Ireland camps, but did not make the cut this time around.

And, while there is little to play for, the youngster says that the players won't be letting their performance drop against the Italians.

"This is a huge game for Connacht, it might be the last Heineken Cup game for Connacht for a time and that will drive us on.

"We need to get that win and three from six would be great for us in just our second year. It is better than teams that have been in it for a good few years," he said.

O'Halloran believes that the Heineken Cup experience has stood to the Westerners as they strive to keep up with the bigger Irish provinces, and he is hoping to be back at the top table next season.

"It is massive. When you are growing up, you are watching these great Heineken Cup clashes. There was real excitement about it and when Leinster got us into it last year it was such a great lift for everyone around and it brought a whole new audience to Connacht.

"The Heineken Cup has been brilliant. We are looking for a favour again but hopefully we can be in it again."

Parks' return is one of three changes. Brett Wilkinson comes in for the injured Denis Buckley at loosehead, while Mick Kearney starts at blindside, with Andrew Browne moving to No 8 in place of Eoin McKeon, who hasn't recovered from an ankle injury he picked up last weekend.

Verdict: Connacht

Connacht – R Henshaw; T O'Halloran, E Griffin, D McSharry, F Vainikolo; D Parks, K Marmion; B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wright, N White (capt), M Swift, M McCarthy; M Kearney, J O'Connor, A Browne. Reps: E Reynecke, JP Cooney, R Loughney, D Gannon, E Grace, P O'Donohoe, M Nikora, D Poolman.

Zebre – T Tebaldi; G Venditti, R Quartaroli, M Pratichetti, R Trevisan; D Halangahu, A Chillon; S Perugini, D Giazzon, L Redolfini; M van Vuuren, J Sole; E Caffini, M Bergamasco (capt), F Ferrarini. Reps: C Festuccia, M Aguero, D Ryan, N Belardo, A Manici, L Martinelli, A Chiesa, S Pace.

Ref – P Gauzere (France)

Connacht v Zebre,

Live, 8.0, Sky Sports (interactive)

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