Backrow injuries cause Connacht concern ahead of Scarlets' visit
By Linley Mackenzie
Having grabbed a valuable away victory last weekend, Connacht Rugby return to the Galway Sportsgound on Saturday (3pm) intent on taking the scalp of high-flying Welsh outfit Scarlets.
The current league leaders, unbeaten in two games, have already amassed 10 tries, and Connacht coach Eric Elwood knows his side will have a job taking the full points from this third RaboDirect Pro 12 encounter.
"The Scarlets arrive here as league leaders and are back to their traditional best, playing a fast tempo game. Having already scored 10 tires in just two games, our defence will have to be on top and we know we have our work cut out for ourselves."
Elwood says Connacht will need to step it up another notch after a comfortable 30- 17 win over newcomers Zebre last weekend in Italy.
"It took a massive effort last weekend - the travel, the heat, and playing against an Italian side with some 400 caps in their first home match. The lads showed huge character, particularly when we were forced into making so many changes in the second half. Now they will have to step it up again against the Scarlets who are riding high after their first two games.
" Every game for us is tough, but the lads are fronting up week-in week-out. If you take into consideration the travel, the heat last weekend, the hard ground which was a huge transition from the conditions they had played in the previous week, the injuries in the second half, I believe the lads adapted brilliantly."
However there were some casualties, notably John Muldoon, No 8 George Naoupu, and returning scrumhalf Frank Murphy. Muldoon, who has an ankle injury, was awaiting results of a Monday scan, while Naoupu has a haematoma in his calf which he sustained in the opening 10 minus of last weekend's game, but continued the play.
"George showed immense character last weekend to play through the pain barrier and we will give him as much time as possible to make Saturday's team, " says Elwood.
Similarly Frank Murphy also underwent a scan on his knee, and all three are doubtful for the weekend, with Naoupu being the best hope for recovery.
Last weekend Connacht conceded two tries - one from a set piece move at the base of the scrum, and the second when left wing Samuele Pace was given too much space on a weaving run from half way,. It allowed Zebre into the contest having been starved in the first half.
Connacht were well in control with a 23 - 7 lead early in the second half, but the home side, in their first RaboDirect Pro 12 home fixture at a new Stadio XXV Aprile, responded to the encouraging 2500 crowd, grabbed two tries, and set up a nail-biting finish.
With one last roll of the dice, Zebre looked to have scored a try which, if converted, would have given them a first victory. Instead replacement Alberto Chiesa spilled the ball from a last-ditch Connacht tackle, and minutes later as Zebre failed to clear their lines at the other end, Mike McCarthy pounced for a third Connacht try, which Nikora converted.
It was a deserving result for the visitors who led 13 - 0 at half time, having dominated possession and territory in what was sometimes a scrappy opening 40 minutes.
Both sides offered commitment in the tackle and a willingess to play expansively as dictated by the 25 degrees evening temperature, but the competition newcomers made several elemental mistakes. In contrast Connacht looked the more composed on the ball and were worthy of an early lead with Miah Nikora kicking a penalty from the right touchline after Zebre were pinged for offside.
With Mike McCarthy in control at the line-out, the backs had plenty of ball, but they did not have it their own way at the breakdown. Zebre outhalf Luciana Orquera had the opportunity to level matters, but his touchline effort was wide, but within four minutes Connacht had launched their try tally for the season. Prop Denis Buckley did well to secure loose ball before a chip through bounced perfectly for the in-rushing Tiernan O'Halloran who touched down for Connacht's first try of the season. Nikora, whose goalkicking was flawless, added the extras, and a 38th minute penalty to stretch the lead to 13 points.
Zebre started the half with superb individual try from left wing Samuele Pace, who along with his backs continued to probe the Connacht defence at every opportunity. Orquera's conversion added impetus to the Italian side's revival until Connacht edged ahead with a Nikora penalty. A pushover try from George Naoupu and Nikora's conversion gave Connacht some comfort, and they needed it. For the remainder of the half, it was all the home side. Zebre's No 8 Andries Van Schalkwyk profited when he burst from the base of the scrum to cross and when Orquera closed the gap to six points, the home side continued to push forward. However's Connacht's defence held firm to ensure Connacht grabbed a valuable way victory,
Connacht: G Duffy (cpt); T O'Halloran, E Griffin, M Fifita, F Vainikolo; M Nikora, K Marmion; D Buckley, E Reynecke, R Loughney; M Swift, M McCarthy; J Muldoon, J O'Connor, G Naoupu. Replacements, F Murphy for K Marmion (HT), W Faloon for Muldoon (47m), M Jarvis for Murphy (59m) D Gannon for O'Connor (61m), N White for Buckley and R Ah You for Loughney (65m) R Henshaw for Griffin (70m).
Zebre: S Sinoti, G Venditti, A Benettin, G Garcia (cpt), S Pace, L Orquera, A Chillon, S Perugini, C Festuccia, D Ryan, Q Geldenhuys, J Sole, F Cristiano, M Bergamasco, A Van Schalwyk. Replacements, D Giazzon for Festuccia, T Tebaldi for Chillon and E Caffini for Sole (all 50m), R Trevisan for Pace (58m)m A De Marchi for Perugini and L Redolfini for Ryan (65m), A Chiesa for Benettin (68m0, N Belardo for Cristiano (70m).