Friday 24 November 2017

Much-changed Connacht ready to build on Toulouse victory

Zebre v Connacht, BT Sport (Red Button), tomorrow 3.15

Connacht head coach Pat Lam has praised Bundee Aki and Ultan Dillane
Connacht head coach Pat Lam has praised Bundee Aki and Ultan Dillane
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Everyone will be hoping that lightning doesn't strike twice in Parma tomorrow afternoon as Connacht return to what Zebre will surely view as a crime for a Champions Cup reprise of their abandoned Pro12 match.

Yet to win this season, the Italians will look back at their September clash as one that got away as storms struck and forced referee Ian Davies to call things off with the half-time score 22-10 in their favour.

Pat Lam insists that he is confident that the league champions could have righted the ship in the second half, but at that point they were winless after three and a half games and low on confidence.

They fly out this morning in a different state of mind after victories over Edinburgh, Ulster and Toulouse. The coach insists that the result comes behind the process, but there's nothing like a win to assuage any doubts in the dressing-room.

Zebre are the worst team in the Pro12 and have never won a Champions Cup game. Last week, they shipped 82 points away to Wasps, but they have run Glasgow Warriors and Cardiff Blues close in their home league games, and Lam believes that their near-miss against Connacht will help their mindset.

So, he wants his much-changed team to approach the trip to Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi professionally.

Confidence

"There is no doubt they have got confidence from that, even though the game wasn't completed," Lam said. "If you look too, they ran Glasgow close too. Glasgow were lucky to win there, Cardiff were lucky to win there.

"We know that any team who goes to Parma. . . they never go through a season where they don't win a game. They always win a game; it comes down to who is it going to be against.

"That preparation is crucial. They have taken a hammering this week from people outside wondering are they worthy to be in the Champions Cup. They took a hammering from their own supporters.

"As rugby players we have all been there; there is only one way you can respond to it - you come out firing.

"It's a totally different side but that just puts the emphasis on our preparation."

Lam has chosen to leave Bundee Aki on the bench after his gargantuan efforts against Toulouse.

Tiernan O'Halloran's knee injury sees Cian Kelleher shift across to full-back as Stacey Ili makes his first start on the wing, while Peter Robb partners Craig Ronaldson in the centre. Kieran Marmion is fit enough to start alongside Jack Carty.

Up front, injuries to Denis Buckley and Ronan Loughney see JP Cooney named at loosehead as Finlay Bealham shifts across the front-row and Shane Delahunt comes into the team ahead of Dave Heffernan.

Quinn Roux, who was a late withdrawal last weekend, replaces Ultan Dillane in the second-row, while Sean O'Brien starts after impressing off the bench last week in the win over Toulouse.

After the emotional high of that Sportsground night, this is more business as usual for the western province, who will be looking to stay patient and wait for the Italians to slip up and allow them opportunities.

The forecast doesn't look conducive to running rugby, but even if the conditions are poor Lam's men will back their attacking system to find holes.

The important thing is ensuring they don't concede.

"Our mindset is around our defence," Lam said. "We know that we can score tries against them. But particularly the last day, we conceded three tries in that half. The year before we scored 50-odd points and we allowed 30 in.

"Our defence from the start of the season to where our defence is now, is completely changed. We need to continue to improve that.

"We don't want to be scoring tries, with a try here and a try there. One area where we are going to improve, our big emphasis is on our 'D'."

For many fans, Connacht disappear behind the red button this afternoon and the main event in Pool 2 is Toulouse's clash with Wasps.

The English side took command of the table with their emphatic victory last weekend and victory over the four-time champions can make this pool something of a two-horse race between them and Connacht, who they meet twice in December.

Lam's job is to ensure his side keep their side of the bargain.

"Every week, when there is points on offer, we go after it," he said.

"Wasps getting the five last week has set the marker. We all want to finish top of our pool. There are only five games left and five opportunities to get the points so everyone is trying to get as many as they can."

As the pool's top seeds and a team who have realistic ambitions of qualifying for the quarter-finals, the result here is non-negotiable.

Five points would put the Westerners in a healthy position going into those Wasps games, and anything less would be a disappointment.

Verdict: Connacht

ZEBRE - E Padovani; G Di Giulio, G Bisegni, T Boni, G Venditti; C Canna, M Violi; A Lovotti, O Fabiani, P Ceccarelli; Q Geldenhuys, G Biagi (capt); M Mbanda, J Meyer, D van Schalwyk. Reps: T D'Apice, B Postiglioni, G Roan, J Furno, F Ruzza, G Palazzani, T Castello, G D'Onofrio.

CONNACHT - C Kelleher; N Adeolokun, P Robb, C Ronaldson, S Ili; J Carty, K Marmion; JP Cooney, S Delahunt, F Bealham; Q Roux, A Brown; S O'Brien, J Heenan, J Muldoon (capt). Reps: D Heffernan, D Robertson McCoy, C Carey, U Dillane, E McKeon, C Blade, S O'Leary, B Aki.

REF - M Raynal (France)

Irish Independent

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