Friday 17 January 2020

Connacht qualification hopes 'very much alive' insists Lam

Zebre 6 Connacht 33

Connacht's George Naoupu
Connacht's George Naoupu

Ian Bransfield

Asked to assess his side's state of health in Pool 3, Connacht coach Pat Lam was emphatic in his appraisal. "We're alive," he insisted, "we're very much alive."

The distress born out of events at the Sportsground one week before hadn't fully dissipated but here, at least, Connacht got the show back on the road, the margin of their victory taking them above Saracens on points difference and into second place behind Toulouse.

How long they might stay there is anyone's guess. Certainly, a bonus point in Parma would have helped their cause, but neither players nor management were giving it much thought afterwards.

"The reason it's called a four-try bonus point is because that's what it is, a bonus," remarked Lam. "First and foremost you have to nail the game. There's no point scoring four tries and then losing."

Indeed. Winning the game was Connacht's solitary focus as they pitched up in Emilia-Romagna, and it wasn't until the final 10 minutes, when the four points were safely tucked away, that they began to loosen up and swing from the hips, as it were.

Up to that point, their pragmatism and self-control had served them quite well. Both their tries came from rehearsed line-out manoeuvres (one each for George Naoupu  and Mata Fifita, whilst their low-risk policy ensured a Zebre side hell-bent on gaining their first ever home victory never really got going.

Instead, the Italians became consumed by their own frustrations, coughing up penalty after penalty in the process. It amounted to something of a turkey-shoot for Dan Parks, who kicked eight from nine in an impressive 23-point haul.

"That was Dan's best game," commented Lam of his metronomic out-half. "He wasn't too happy last week about some of his kicking and he's worked really hard this week to put it right. That paid off for him, and it paid off for the team as well."

In the end, Parks made off with the man of the match award but, had it been up to Lam, he might well have given it to another, less conspicuous Dan, namely Dan McFarland, his forwards coach, the brains behind most of Saturday's greatest hits.

"I take my hat off to him," said Lam. "The two tries we scored came straight off his blackboard. He takes a look at the opposition ahead of every game and devises line-out moves that are likely to work against them, as happened today.

"I was pretty happy with the forwards, but especially with Dan."

Of the backs, Ireland-aspirant Robbie Henshaw was probably the one who stood out most. His swiftness in attack was matched by his industry in defence, with one Brian O'Driscoll-like steal at a ruck and subsequent dart up the tram-line perhaps the most memorable moment of the game.

Unfortunately, the Athlone youngster was forced to leave proceedings earlier than expected with a quad strain, one of many injuries on another busy day for the Connacht physios.

Props Rodney Ah You and Brett Wilkinson were also looking rather tender by the end of it all, but the most serious injury befell full-back James So'oialo, who looks set for a spell on the sidelines after badly spraining his ankle. "We've taken a few knocks again today," said Lam. "It's unfortunate to lose James because we've already lost so many backs. But it's testament to our culture that the guys who are stepping in are capable of doing the job.

Connacht's fate may well be decided in December with back-to-back fixtures against Toulouse. The French aristocrats would appear to have top spot in the pool already sewn up, but Cardiff's unlikely victory over Toulon on Saturday showed that just about anything is possible in this competition.

"They don't come any bigger than Toulouse, but we don't have to worry about that until December comes around," concluded Lam. "Right now we need to recover and take stock of our situation.

"That was a very good team performance by us, a very disciplined performance, especially on the back of what happened last week.

"Everyone said well done for running Saracens close, but asked whether we could do it again. So there was a lot of pressure on us to come out here and win, and to do it so convincingly was satisfying."

Zebre – R Trevisan (A Chillon 73); D Berryman, T Iannone, G Garcia (K Ratuvou 59), D Odiete (L Sarto 41); L Orquera, B Leonard; M Aguero (A de Marchi 62), T D'Apice (D Giazzon 52), D Chistolini (L Leibson 62); M Van Vuren, M Bortolami (capt) (E Caffini 68); M Bergamasco (F Cristiano 74), A Van Schalkwyk, S Vunisa.

Connacht – J So'oialo (G Duffy 42); D Poolman, R Henshaw (D McSharry 66), C Ronaldson, M Healy; D Parks, K Marmion (P O'Donohoe 71); B Wilkinson (JP Cooney 67), S Henry (J Harris Wright 45-74)), R Ah You (R Loughney 46); M Swift (capt) (A Muldowney 54), C Clarke; A Browne, J Heenan (M Fifita 66), G Naoupu.

Ref – I Davies (WRU)

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