Wednesday 21 February 2018

Avoid banana skin and we're still in the race

Bonus point win in Parma will have rivals looking over their shoulders

Connacht’s Danie Poolman dives over to score his side’s first try of the game against Zebre in November and they will need several more tries against the Italians this weekend
Connacht’s Danie Poolman dives over to score his side’s first try of the game against Zebre in November and they will need several more tries against the Italians this weekend
Peter Horne is tackled by Connacht’s Ultan Dillane during the defeat to Glasgow

Johnny O'Connor

For the first time since the start of the season Connacht are going into a game not expecting to get an automatic Champions Cup qualification spot.

At this stage lots of people will be writing them off even getting seventh and they know they need five points at Zebre if they want to stand a chance going into the final round.

It's like they are the underdogs again because they have dropped down in the table and are not expected to qualify. But they will go over there aiming to get five points.

If they come away with just a win it will be an okay return because travelling to Italy with any team, there is always a banana skin there.

Connacht don't need to go out there thinking they need to score four tries in the first five minutes. It may take them up until the 80th minute to secure the bonus point, or it might not happen at all.

They need to be confident in themselves, though. They need to believe they are the better team - and the league table doesn't lie at this time of the year. Connacht are far higher up in the table for a reason and they should be able to beat Zebre, although it won't be comfortable at the start certainly.

But in all reality, five points are a must: they have to get the maximum points. If they go about it by winning the game first that will set a platform for them to work from.

Connacht should try to get a structure in their game and just keep on waiting for their chances, building their points tally and then you would hope Zebre will break down in the final quarter.

As a team Connacht have done very well this season but a couple of players need to have a stand out performance tomorrow. We need world-class performances if Connacht want to progress to the next level here.

Guys need to play out of their skins if they want to get wins in these last two games. Even though Zebre are the league's bottom team, the Connacht players need to play out of their skins, absolutely smash through this game and get ready for the Ospreys in the following round.

But the control needs to be there this weekend.

It's a terrible game to have - you don't want to be playing Zebre when you are still playing for something at the end of the season.


Connacht know what they are going to get from them: it's going to be a tough game. The Italian sides are aggressive so it's always going to be a tough game for a pack and the back-line will find it difficult around the breakdown.

If history tells us anything, Zebre will be ill-disciplined as well so this will be a draining encounter for Connacht, both physically and mentally.

Scarlets found it tough when they went over to Parma in round 19 and only won 28-26 with the last kick of the game. So that's the reality of the challenge Connacht face.

Saying all that they should feel that they are a better team and they will win but they need to respect Zebre. If you don't show up ready for a physical encounter they will blow you out of the water.

That's always the case in a rugby game, though - physically you need to match the opposition or better them, otherwise you won't stand a chance.

All the focus was on sixth place all season, but seventh place is becoming more valuable now as well, with Gloucester winning the Challenge Cup. That route into the Champions Cup is well within Connacht's grasp. That makes the fight for seventh a bit more interesting.

But Connacht need to keep their sights set on sixth place with two rounds still left to go and if they fall short, seventh will be a nice runners-up prize.

Looking elsewhere, Edinburgh take on Dragons at Rodney Parade and Scarlets host Cardiff at Parc Y Scarlets in a Welsh derby.

Considering it's a regional derby, you would hope Cardiff could spring a surprise and upset Scarlets, and with Edinburgh surely tired after their recent exertions in the Challenge Cup and the Pro12 it's hard to know what to expect from them.

But Connacht cannot be thinking about their rivals, they need to go to Italy get a win - hopefully all five points - to continue their interest into the final round.

Irish Independent

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