Friday 24 November 2017

Muldoon key to Connacht chances of away victory

Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

IT was the old familiar story for Connacht in Ravenhill last week.

Following a stellar display against Leinster that yielded five tries and a bonus point, Connacht travelled to Belfast and drew a blank.

Perhaps they had one eye on today's game in Italy against Zebre (1.35) and the carrot of a historic first away win in the Heineken Cup.

Eric Elwood's team selection shows four changes in the pack from the side that were held scoreless against Ulster.

Adrian Flavin is replaced by Ethienne Reynecke at hooker and the 30-year-old South African will be joined by Denis Buckley and Nathan White in an all new front row.

But, most significantly, John Muldoon is fit again after a heel injury and he replaces Dave Gannon in the back row. Muldoon featured off the bench against Ulster and his experience will be required if Connacht are to secure that first away win in the tournament -- particularly as academy members Kieran Marmion and Robbie Henshaw have been handed significant responsibility as they earn their seventh caps for the province at scrum-half and full-back respectively.

The door was opened for Marmion after Frank Murphy picked up a knee injury -- which will keep him out until the end of the season -- in Connacht's Pro12 win over the Italians last month.

Marmion, though, will have the experience of Dan Parks outside him, who is 14th on the all-time scoring list in Europe.

Connacht emerged 30-17 winners that day in what was Zebre's first competitive home game, thanks to tries from Tiernan O'Halloran, George Naoupu and Mike McCarthy.

But with their second Heineken Cup campaign about to kick off, the province will have to ensure that their European campaign doesn't have the same effect as last season.

Elwood's side lost 14 games on the trot last season before scalping Harlequins in Galway in round six.

And with Elwood stepping down after this season, they'll be hoping to send him off after a good campaign on both fronts.

Zebre are an entirely new outfit but there are some familiar names on the team-sheet.

Fans of Super 14 rugby might remember former Waratahs back Daniel Halangahu, who makes his Heineken Cup bow at full-back, while there is also an Irish connection in the new franchise.

Former Munster prop Dave Ryan turned down the chance to play for the US Eagles after Zebre came calling with the prospect of an Italy cap further down the line.

And while he doesn't feature in the match-day squad, he's confident his new team-mates can put on a good display.

"My mother is American and they were interested in me. They had seen footage of me and I guess they heard I was eligible for the US. They asked me to come over for a trial, but then the offer came in from Zebre," said Ryan.

"My contract with Zebre hinged on the fact that I could qualify for Italy in two years, so I couldn't pass up the opportunity and the security of a two-year contract," said the former Dolphin clubman, whose brother Tim has signed with the Dragons.

"It will be tough, it is a really tough draw, but we'd be confident that we can compete. We are starting from the ground up, but games will bring us on."

Connacht can empathise with those sentiments, but they have been around long enough and should pick up their third win of the season.

Verdict: Connacht

Zebre -- D Halangahu; G Venditti, M Pratichetti, G Garcia, S Sinoti; L Orquera, T Tebaldi; S Perugini, D Giazzon, LRedolfini; Q Geldenhuys, J Sole; N Belardo, M Bergamasco, D van Schalkwyk. Reps: C Festuccia, M Aguero, C Fazzari, M Van Vuren, F Ferrarini, L Martinelli, R Trevisan, L Sarto.

Connacht -- R Henshaw; T O'Halloran, E Griffin, D McSharry, F Vainikolo; D Parks, K Marmion; D Buckley, E Reynecke, N White (capt); M Swift, M McCarthy; J Muldoon, W Faloon, G Naoupu. Reps: A Flavin, R Ah You, R Loughney, D Gannon, J O'Connor, D Moore, M Nikora, M Fifita.

Ref -- L Hodges (WRU).

Irish Independent

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