Thursday 17 October 2019

New Connacht coach eager to earn his stripes against Zebre

Connacht v Zebre, Live, TG4, 5.15

Connacht coach Andy Friend. Photo: Sportsfile
Connacht coach Andy Friend. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

When the clock ticked towards red in Galway last weekend, we were reminded of another dramatic denoument when a certain man from Portumna decided to reach behind him and pluck an unwritten rule book from god knows where.

Connacht were trailing to Wasps in a Champions Cup tie when they were awarded a penalty in the opposition 22; it would be the final play.

Soon, there would be a new rule to allow teams to kick to touch and play the lineout, but not in December, 2016.

That didn't stop the 'bould' John Muldoon though, whose audacious authority persuaded the French whistler Mathieu Reynal to accede to the illegal request; Connacht scored, nabbing a famous victory before all hell broke loose.

Last weekend, with his side hanging on to victory, Stuart Hogg ran the ball back over his own try-line and then attempted a quick counter after dotting down; it should have been a five-metre scrum but it wasn't.

Connacht admitted many of their heads went down; Muldoon's thoughtful presence was sorely missed. So too his physical impact, particularly as Connacht struggled in the restarts all day.

Still, it was a decent display against a top-ranked side, even if a final-quarter blow-out undid much of the good work.

However, any optimism will be tinged with anxiety at the prospect of today's visitors; Zebre's double typified Connacht's travails last term.

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Dismissing them today would not only earn a modicum of revenge against the Italians, and the province's returning old friend Michael Bradley, but also provide a morale boost to the region's incoming new Friend, Andy.

Zebre swatted the hapless Southern Kings aside last week so will not lack confidence, despite the dis-spiriting loss of sparkling full-back Matteo Minozzi.

"I had a look at their game and that was a good victory for them against the Kings," said the new Connacht coach. "They will have got a boost from that win.

"There were a lot of good things to take out of our game. Of course we were disappointed to lose it.

"Sometimes you get clouded by the result. It didn't go our way against Glasgow but there is plenty of good football in this team and hopefully we will see that against Zebre.

"I know that if we keep that energy, we keep believing in ourselves and the style we want to play, we are going to make it very difficult for a lot of sides."

Their chances will be boosted by some signficant inclusions as Friend makes four changes to his side, as well as welcoming back Irish scrum-half Kieran Marmion to his bench.

Back row Sean O'Brien, as injury-plagued as his Leinster name-sake, joins breakthough lock Gavin Thornbury and Quinn Roux in the pack, while Eoin Griffin comes in to join Wallaby Kyle Godwin in midfield.

New signing Colby Fainga'a increases Connacht's back-row options as he is named among the replacements but it is encouraging to see academy player Paul Boyle keep his place, shifting to No 8.

These sides meet again in April; Connacht will hope to be well clear of their rivals by then and winning here will help them on their way.

Verdict: Connacht

Connacht - T O'Halloran; C Kelleher, E Griffin, K Godwin, M Healy, J Carty, C Blade; D Buckley, D Heffernan, F Bealham, G Thornbury, Q Roux, S O'Brien, J Butler, P Boyle. Reps: S Delahunt, C O'Donnell, D Robertson-McCoy, J Cannon, C Fainga'a, K Marmion, C Ronaldson, N Adeolokun.

Zebre - E Padovani, M Bellini,G Bisegni, N De Battista, G Venditti; C Canna, M Violi; A Lovotti, O Fabiani, G Zilocchi, D Sisi, G Biagi capt, M Tevi, J Meyer, R Giammarioli. Reps: M Ceciliani, D Rimpelli, R Tenga, A Tayyavuca, J Tuivati, G Palazzini, F Brummer, T Boni.

REF - Lloyd Linton (SRU)

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