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Pat Lam has been desperately counting his players into training sessions in recent weeks having had so many counted out through injury, but the Connacht Rugby head coach has at least had some good news in the build-up to his side’s vital Champions Cup clash with Zebre.
To stay on course for a tilt at a quarter-final place for the first time they must match the efforts of Toulouse and Wasps in taking the full five points against the Italians. They managed that in the away game but, with three teams locked on 13 points at the top of Pool 2, they need a full house in Galway.
Last weekend Zebre were conceded 10 tries in a 70-6 defeat against Leinster in Dublin and they will hardly be relishing a return visit to Ireland. With Wasps hosting Toulouse in the other game, a bonus point win for Lam’s men will at least move them up one place in the table from third or even put them back on top.
A lot of the preparation for the game will be carried out in the treatment room this week. Having seen their squad bolstered by the addition of outside half Steve Crosbie, centre Owen Farrell and prop Peter McCabe, Connacht fans will be delighted to know that inspirational skipper John Muldoon has recovered from his hamstring injury.
Outside half Jack Carty has been ruled out of the Round 5 Champions Cup game because of the knee injury he picked up in the defeat against the Ospreys in Swansea last weekend, but the good news is that as his injury is only a low grade medial knee ligament sprain he could be back for the trip to Toulouse in Round 6.
Definitely ruled out of both remaining pool matches, however, is Ireland lock Ultan Dillane, who suffered an ankle injury against the Ospreys. He is expected back in action in February, while back row man Nepia Fox-Matamua won’t play this week due to a rib cartilage problem and Irish international lock Quinn Roux is being treated for a groin injury.
This is Zebre’s third season in the European Cup and they have yet to win a game. In fact, they have only managed to pick up one losing bonus point in 16 games and have conceded 33 tries in four outings this season.
“We never take Zebre lightly and never will – we have massive respect for them and we are staying focused. Up front, they have quality players and internationals, including two international tightheads,” said Connacht forwards coach Jimmy Duffy.
“There are not a lot of weak links in that operation, and then they have a phenomenal player at outside half in Carlo Canna. We are treating Zebre as if they are the top side in the competition.
“We haven’t mentioned the five points but the main focus is on performing, winning the game and respecting the opposition. If we perform, we should be a good position to gain a win and if there are five points on offer, then 100 per cent we will go for it.”
- Connacht have won all five previous meetings with Zebre in the tournament including a 52-7 victory in Round 2.
- Zebre are still searching for their first victory in the top flight (L16); the nearest they have come to winning so far was a five-point loss at The Sportsground in 2013.
- A win would represent Connacht’s best pool stage performance in a Champions Cup campaign – they have never won four matches in a season.
- Connacht have averaged the most metres gained (629) and the most clean breaks (15.5) per game this season while Zebre have averaged the fewest metres (215) and clean breaks (3.8).
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Connacht Rugby thrashed a poor Zebre outfit 66-21 to record a bonus-point success and keep up their hopes of reaching the last eight of the European Rugby Champions Cup.
Pat Lam’s men ran in six tries before the break to take total control of the game despite Zebre crossing for two themselves early on.
But there was only ever going to be one winner in this encounter as Connacht added four more tries in the second half. It completed a miserable few days in Ireland for Zebre after they followed their 10-try Pro12 loss to Leinster last weekend by conceding the same number of tries in Galway to go down to their 17th successive European defeat.
Matt Healy, man of the match Tiernan O’Halloran and Kieran Marmion ended the one-sided contest with two tries each leaving Connacht to turn their attentions to next weekend’s crunch visit to Toulouse.
A fast start saw both sides score two tries inside an entertaining opening quarter.
With less than 90 seconds on the clock, O’Halloran’s searing break allowed Healy to go over in the corner, John Cooney converting for a 7-0 lead.
Zebre have had a miserable Champions Cup campaign but with nothing to lose, they rolled the dice and soon hit back. Back-row forwards Johan Meyer and Federico Ruzza crossed for two quick-fire scores from close range and with Italian fly-half Carlo Canna adding the extras, it was now 14-7 to the visitors.
A capacity Sportsground crowd were shocked but with Zebre vulnerable defensively, it wasn’t long before their team were back ahead and with a bonus point too.
With Marmion looking dangerous at scrum-half, Cooney sprinted clear to score before O’Halloran collected the fly-half’s delicate chip through to dot down underneath the posts. Cooney converted both scores before prop Finlay Bealham crossed from a rolling maul for the crucial fourth of the day.
Cooney kicked the goal once more to make it 28-14 and it wasn’t long before the wheels fell off for Zebre.
The visitors were struggling with discipline and their penalty count was through the roof so it was no surprise when Lloyd Greef and Pietro Cecccarelli were both yellow carded in quick succession.
Down to 13 men, Zebre’s already failing defence then fell apart, the excellent Marmion crossing himself and then setting up Craig Ronaldson for another just before half time. Cooney converted the second of those scores to make it 40-14 at the break.
Zebre began the second half two men light and the action continued to follow a familiar pattern.
Just seconds after the restart, Healy brushed off some woeful tackling to score in the corner and O’Halloran then added his second of the game.
Cooney’s kicking was superb and two more conversions took him to 19 points for the day.
The return of Greef and Cecccarelli helped Zebre shore things up a touch and while Marmion crossed for Connacht’s ninth after running another superb support line, the visitors didn’t go away.
After finally finding some possession, Mattia Bellini scored their third try, with Canna converting.
By that stage both teams had made a raft of changes, but that failed to stop the scoring as Connacht replacement Caolin Blade made it 10 home tries on the day to complete the rout late on.