Zebre v Connacht: Preview & live score commentary Kick off 1:35pm
Eric Elwood views Connacht’s opening Heineken Cup match against Zebre on Saturday as a ‘must-win’ for the Irish province if they are to build on last season’s exploits.
Connacht has already come away from the Stadio XXV Apriele stadium with a 30-17 win in the RaboDirect PRO 12 earlier this season in an unconvincing performance.
But it’s not just the coach that has greater expectations from his team, so do the fans. Where last year there was an almost over-kill of Connacht paraphernalia and euphoria dominating the Galway streets, this game, however, has been somewhat a low-key affair in the build-up.
Maybe it’s because the opening game is in Parma, maybe because it’s Zebre, a team Connacht are expected to defeat easily. Either way Connacht supporters are quietly confident the westerners can achieve something bigger this year and now wait patiently for the big guns of European rugby to arrive.
Overall in Pool 3 Connacht’s chances have been supplemented by the inclusion of Zebre – no wonder the English clubs are up in arms. The club formally known as Aironi didn’t exist a mere four months ago and are now playing in their first Heineken Cup. They’re still winless in the RaboDirect PRO 12 and, on average, have conceded three tries per game and look destined to be rock bottom of the pool standings come January.
If the Irish province are to push-on from last year, winning at home to the big guys like Biarritz must happen. Everybody saw Connacht pip Harlequins in last year’s final pool match in an enthralling night at the Sportsground and supporters are once more expecting nights like this at the College road venue. But will Connacht defeat Harlequins for a second successive year? Will they somehow throw a spanner into the works of Biarritz? If Elwood’s men stay injury free there is always a chance, especially now given the team are more experienced in the Heineken Cup.
The fans are now eyeing, at least, two victories in the group stages because of Zebre’s whipping-boy tag. However, the irony is other teams in the group also view Zebre’s matches as potential bonus point wins, which may well run against Connacht in the final standings.
In team news, Elwood’s four changes in personnel for Connacht are all in the pack. A fit again John Muldoon returns at blindside, hooker Ethienne Reynecke replaces Adrain Flavin while Denis Buckley and captain for the game Nathan White complete a new-look front row trio.
Zebra will certainly be no pushover this time as they have changed their style of play. Head Coach Alessandor Troncon has employed counter-attacking rugby as their new tactic to deal with opposition team’s dominance of possession. Last time out Connacht gave away a soft try from the base of scrum through number 8 Andries Van Schalkwyk who galloped freely over the line. A troublesome backrow trio they are and, along with quick breakaways, is where the Italian side are at their most dangerous.
Connacht’s defence has been good all season but must be at its most disciplined if they are to record back-to-back Heineken Cup victories and start the 2012/2013 campaign on a high.
Connacht team to face Zebre
(15-9) Robbie Henshaw, Tiernan O’Halloran, Eoin Griffin, Dave McSharry, Fetu’u Vainikolo, Dan Parks, Kieran Marmion;
(1-8) Denis Buckley, Ethienne Reynecke, Nathan White (C), Michael Swift, Mike McCarthy, John Muldoon, Willie Faloon, George Naoupu
(16-23) Adrian Flavin, Rodney Ah You, Ronan Loughney, Dave Gannon, Johnny O’Connor, Dave Moore, Miah Nikora, Mata Fifita.