Eric Elwood and his team aim to finish on a high in their last Heineken Cup Pool game of the season when they welcome Italian side Zebre to the Sportsground, Friday, 8pm.
Elwood has made three changes to his team that lost heavily to Harlequins last week. Dan Parks, Brett Wilkinson and Mick Kearney all come back into the team in place of Matt Jarvis and, the injured duo of Denis Buckley and George Naoupu respectively.
Zebre’s performance in this year’s Pool 3 stages raised more questions than answers. The new Italian franchise have been one of the worst performers in quite some time, and one wonders how and why they were allowed to join Europe’s elite club rugby competition. Christian Gajan’s side have conceded 199 points after only five games, scoring just over 50 points in response.
The Italian side’s inclusion in Pool 3 was, of course, good news for Connacht’s chances of securing more than two Heineken Cup wins and the much sought-after ERC club rankings. Last October in Parma a John Muldoon try secured his side a priceless and first away win in the competition. However, Connacht made unnecessary hard-work of their 10-19 victory despite being the better team that night.
What followed for the Westerners was a monumental home victory over Biarritz, after, or course, a comprehensive defeat by Harlequins. However, such was the euphoria surrounding the win over the Basque club, the ludicrous dream of qualifying for the knock-out stages was thrown around. A far-flung dream indeed as Connacht subsequently went down to both Biarritz and Quins in the return legs.
The Connacht players will be going all-out for victory in the Sprotsground on Friday night to appease their inspirational coach on his final Heineken Cup game in charge. But it’s not just Elwood the payers want to win for, the hardened fans who made the trip to England last week got a special mention from flanker Johnny O’Connor earlier in the week.
“Both the players and management were blown away by the fans at The Stoop last weekend. We could hear ‘The Fields of Athenry’ thundering from the North Stand and it really drove us on in what was a difficult game. We’re all really looking forward to giving our fans something to shout about this Friday night against Zebre. We want to finish our second Heineken Cup year on a high and a win this weekend would be a huge boost to the players, club and supporters. “
Connacht XV to face Zebre
(15-9)Robbie Henshaw; Tiernan O’Halloran, Eoin Griffin, Dave McSharry, Fetu’u Vainikolo; Dan Parks, Kieran Marmion;
(1-8)Brett Wilkinson, Jason Harris-Wright, Nathan White; (C) Michael Swift, Mike McCarthy; Mick Kearney, Johnny O’Connor, Andrew Browne.
(16-23)Ethienne Reynecke, JP Cooney, Ronan Loughney, Dave Gannon, Eoghan Grace, Paul O’Donohoe, Miah Nikora, Danie Poolman