Trip to Italy gives Connacht chance to get back on track
When Pat Lam spied Parma on the Connacht itinerary when the Guinness Pro12 fixtures were released in the summer, he couldn't help but smile.
"When I saw Zebre away early on, I was like, 'Ah nice, I can top up the tan!' A few weeks later, the urgency for his side to top up their points total cannot be more pronounced.
The defending champions have slumped from the Pro12 peak to the trough in just seven days as Glasgow and Ospreys scurried from Galway with handsome bonus-point wins.
Their sharp decline has been as unpredictable as their astonishing incline last season; they will, soon, re-discover a happy balance; a shed-load of points against normally munificent opponents this afternoon will aid the return to equilibrium.
Lam will maintain his, in celebration or crisis.
"Without a doubt, these are the moments I do really enjoy, I know it's funny," he explains.
"These are the moments, as a leader, you need to lead well. It's great that we've been able to do it when things are going really well, and now this is where it really counts.
"This is why you build your culture, system and structures. My whole philosophy is about better people and better rugby people, these are the times you get that.
"That's why I have joy. Don't get me wrong. I'm not happy with where we're at. I'm disappointed where we're at.
"But I have joy that I know how to get out of this situation. I know the learnings that will come. This is where everything gets tested."
As for his troops, Bundee Aki and Eoin Griffin swap positions in midfield while 22-year-old ex-Leinster man Cian Kelleher returns from injury on the wing, after making his Connacht debut at full-back on the opening weekend against Glasgow. Caolin Blade is also re-introduced at scrum-half.
Up front, Denis Buckley makes a welcome return from injury at loose-head while JP Cooney starts at tight-head in the absence of Finlay Bealham because of illness this week.
There is a new second-row partnership of Lewis Stevenson and Andrew Browne.
Irish internationals Ultan Dillane, Kieran Marmion and Matt Healy are included among the replacements while summer signing, Belfast-born tight-head Conor Carey, is in line to make his debut from the bench.
In 12 attempts, the Italians have never managed to beat Connacht, a trend which will continue; a fifth successive bonus-point win from the fixture would do much to restore the confidence of Lam's men.
Zebre - E Padovani; G Di Giulio, G Bisegni, T Boni, V Giovanbattista; C Canna, G Palazzani; A De Marchi, O Fabiani, P Ceccarelli; Q Geldenhuys, G Biagi (capt); J Sarto, M Mbanda, F Ruzza. Reps: D Tommaso, P Bruno, G Roan or D Chistolini, G Koegelenberg, D Minnie, C Engelbrecht, T Castello, K Van Zyl.
Connacht - T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun, B Aki, E Griffin, C Kelleher; J Carty, C Blade; D Buckley, T McCartney, JP Cooney; L Stevenson, A Browne; E McKeon, J Connolly, J Muldoon (capt). Reps: D Heffernan, R Loughney, C Carey, U Dillane, R Moloney, K Marmion, S O'Leary, M Healy.
REF - Ian Davies (WRU)