Man of the match Henshaw ready to step up
By Linley Mackenzie
Connacht take a break from action this weekend as the province hosts the Ireland Wolfhounds against the England Saxons at the Galway Sportsground tomorrow evening (7.35pm).
The Irish team is due to be announced this afternoon and local hopes are high Connacht’s Robbie Henshaw and Dave McSharry will be included in the matchday squad.
Henshaw was the Man of the Match last weekend when Connacht signed off this season’s Heineken Cup campaign with a hard-fought 25 - 20 win over visitors Zebre.
Although the home side made hard work of this final pool three fixture against a gritty Italian outfit, a third Heineken Cup win in only their second season is a significant achievement for Connacht.
Coach Eric Elwood was delighted and relieved to have ground out a third win.
"We got the victory which was important, but when we got the 10-points lead we took the foot off the pedal and by doing so we gave them the opportunity to get back into the game. However the pleasing thing was that when they took the lead, we showed a lot of character in coming back to win the game
"It's nice to say we won the game, winning ugly, but we finished the campaign on a high, and I will take that."
Outhalf Dan Parks, whose drop goal in the 75th minute sealed the victory, once again was an influential figure for the home side.
"In the first half he controlled the game, and in the second he made some uncharacteristic errors, but on nights like tonight it’s important to have someone who can guide you around the park, but more importantly when he can hit those drop goals and long range penalties - that's what he is here for and that's what he did tonight to close out these tight games."
Connacht, with a dominant scrum, controlled proceedings for long periods in the opening half, but they did not get the necessary points on the board for the amount of possession they enjoyed. Dan Parks struck two penalties in between an effort from Zebre’s Daniel Halangahu, and although Parks was on target with a 24th minute drop goal, Connacht once again conceded a soft three points when they strayed offside from Parks' garryowen. It was Zebre's second only opportunity and Halangahu capitalised, narrowing the gap to just three points after 27 minutes.
Connacht continued to play all the rugby, but they could not finish the many chances created. Fullback Robbie Henshaw was the heart of Connacht's best attacks, while Fetu Vainikolo was eager to get involved, but too often the support play was lacking in precision. However Parks continued to probe behind the Zebre defence, and when left wing Trevisan Ruggero delayed releasing, Parks once again struck the resulting penalty to restore a six-point lead before the break.
Crucially Connacht got the score they needed just after the interval when opting for a penalty to touch, and from a resulting scrum, Connacht were awarded a penalty try, with Parks adding the extras for a 19 - 6 lead.
The score, however, propelled their opponents and they grasped control of the game through some solid support play, skillfully offloading and driving through the Connacht defence. Halangahu chipped away at the Connacht lead with two penalties before industrious replacement scrumhalf Luca Martinella switched direction, providing the space for Trevisan to score in the corner.
When Parks' penalty attempt four minutes later bounced off the upright, Zebre replied with a 69th minute penalty to take the lead for the first time. To the relief of the 5803 supporters, Parks restored the narrow lead two minutes later after good work at the breakdown, and when Henshaw took the game by the scruff of the neck, Parks edged Connacht five ahead with a 75th minute drop goal.
Connacht Rugby: R Henshaw; T O'Halloran, E Griffin, D McSharry, F Vainikolo; D Parks, K Marmion; B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wright, N White (c), M Swift, M McCarthy, M Kearney, J O'Connor, A Browne. Replacements: D Poolman for Griffin (60m), P O'Donohoe for Marmion, R Loughney for White, and E Reynecke for Harris-Wright (all 72m), E Grace for O'Connor (75m).