Connacht wary of improving Italians

Connacht try scorer Cian Kelleher in m the opening game of the Guinness Pro 14 Championship against Glasgow at the Sportsground, Saturday. 
					Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

Connacht try scorer Cian Kelleher in m the opening game of the Guinness Pro 14 Championship against Glasgow at the Sportsground, Saturday. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

Game two of the 2018/19 Guinness PRO14 season, and already the pressure is on Connacht to deliver a winning result when former coach Michael Bradley returns with his improving Zebre outfit on Saturday (5.15pm ).

A one-point loss to Glasgow last Saturday was a disappointing result given the control Connacht exerted for long periods, but expectations are that much higher against a Italian outfit that has only once left the Galway Sportsground victorious.

That was last February when they lost 19-11 in what was probably the nadir of a see-saw season that contrasted with three home wins against the Irish provinces, and as a result Connacht will be more prepared mentally for Saturday's visitors.

The bottom line is a victory, and the Connacht management and players know it.

Backs coach Nigel Carolan says Connacht expects to win if they perform in attack and defence.

"We expect to score and we expect to keep them out, and that is what we have been delivering in the pre-season and that is what we expect of ourselves. It is not going to add to the pressure we put on ourselves, it's about maintaining standards."

Connacht are particularly aware of Zebre's unpredictable attack that cut them apart twice last season to record a first double, heightening the need for an improved defence that allowed Glasgow to bag four tries last weekend.

"Zebre's attack can be very loose, it can be ragged, it can be haphazard, but it's also very dangerous because it can be unpredictable. It very much revolves around Carlo Canna, and he's very effective, but any chance they get to speed it up, offload, get in behind, to grubber, to make it ugly, it seems to suit them.

"So we don't want to be dragged into an arm wrestle. It is very much about us maintaining our attack structure. We have to be direct as well, and cannot afford to get loose, because they are very dangerous."

Defensive frailties on the fringe and poor restarts played into Glasgow's hands last weekend, but Carolan says Connacht have made changes that will work.

"We have a new system in restarts, so the main thing is to be patient with the system we are implementing," he says of the new starting pods which involve backs and forwards.

"It is something Andy [Friend] has brought in from the Sevens. In his experience, backs are more athletic, so when the ball goes in behind, they have to be able to deal with it. It is very simple, but it's just an awareness to the new system.

Ireland scrumhalf Kieran Marmion and centre Bundee Aki have returned to full training this week. Marmion is expected to line-out, but Aki may need to wait another week as per an IRFU agreement.

Connacht were also awaiting an update on No 8 Eoin McKeon after taking another knock to his shoulder, while Robin Copeland is "close" to a return from a quad twinge. Good news is the return to full fitness of experienced hooker Tom McCartney.

Certainly Connacht are hurting after letting slip a nine-point lead to allow Glasgow record a third successive win on opening day of the PRO14. They had a last-gasp chance to win, but replacement outhalf Craig Ronaldson was milimetres wide, with a penaltt.

"We were not good enough to finish it off," Friend said. "Our attack shape gives us great opportunity and momentum going forward, but we have to be better in converting it into points.”

Connacht led 23-17 at half-time and looked on target to win, but they failed to build on a 41st minute Jack Carty penalty. The Scots, with numerous international leaders, none more so than fullback Stuart Hogg, eked out a victory. His superb touchline kick set up a Johnny Gray led maul in the 64th minute, and his drop goal in the 73rd minute sealed the deal.

The home side recovered from a poor start after Glasgow's influential No 8 Ryan Wilson broke out of defence, and Hogg provided the chip ahead for Tommy Seymour to touch down. However, Connacht took advantage of an 11th minute penalty to open their tally through Jack Carty, and three minutes later, the outhalf's superb crossfield kick provided an in-form Cian Kelleher with the opportunity to bag his side's opening try after some patient attacking play. Carty, who missed only one kick all day, added the conversion for a 10-5 lead, but Glasgow hooker George Turner capitalised on some poor fringe defending to charge through from 10 metres, and Peter Horne added the extras.

There was much to admire in Connacht's attacking play. Jarrad Butler played a captain's role, leading his pack into contact, Tom Farrell and Tiernan O'Halloran were influential in the build-up to try No 2, and Blade's pass found a willing Finlay Bealham, who sidestepped the defence to touch down.

But once again Glasgow regained the initiative before Wilson bagged the a second try, and although three successive Carty penalties had Connacht on the front foot for much of the second half, they failed to score after the 41st minute.

Connacht: T O'Halloran, C Kelleher, T Farrell, K Godwin, M Healy, J Carty, C Blade, D Buckley, D Heffernan, F Bealham, U Dillane, J Cannon, P Boyle, J Butler © , E McKeon, Replacements, C Gallagher for McKeon (14m ), Q Roux for Cannon (47m ), N Adeolokun for O'Halloran, and P McCabe for Buckley (52 ), C Carey for Bealham (55 ), J Mitchell, C Ronaldson for Carty (66m ), S Delahuntfor Heffernan and J Mitchell for Blade (both 74 ).

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