Parks expected to return for Connacht duty against Zebre
By Linley Mackenzie
Connacht must maintain their momentum when they return to the Galway Sportsground tomorrow evening (7.45pm) to host Italian visitors Zebre.
Achieving a fourth victory this season over Zebre is well within Connacht’s capabilities, but they can take nothing for granted against a side desperate to grab a first RaboDirect Pro 12 win.
Connacht will be mindful that they only edged their last meeting in the Sportsground by 25 - 20 thanks to two late kicks at goal by Dan Parks. That victory sealed a significant third Heineken Cup win, and a third over the Italians in both Heineken Cup and Pro 12 competitions. However the Italians have been narrowing the gap on their league rivals with every game - last weekend they lost by the narrowest of margins, 13-14, to Newport Gwent Dragons - the fifth occasion in the Pro12 that Zebre have been leading inside the final quarter of a game only to eventually lose the match.
Connacht coach Eric Elwood expects another tough encounter with this gritty Italian outfit.
“We are under no illusions. They put us to the pin of the collar last time, so nothing will be easy. They will be disappointed they lost narrowly to the Dragons last week and they came close to beating us here in Galway, so they will see this as a big opportunity,” Elwood says.
However he insists Connacht are in confident form as they look for a third win on the bounce.
“We are in a good space and we go into the game with confidence. We had a big improvement in our discipline and it has paid dividends, so once we control what we can do and control the breakdown, we are capable of scoring tries. We know what it takes to win a match and we are absolutely not taking anything for granted.”
Connacht welcome the return of Robbie Henshaw from the Ireland training camp and he is likely to return to fullback, while Dan Parks, who was a late withdrawal last weekend with a hamstring injury, is expected to be fully fit. No 8 George Naoupu, who has been out for several weeks with a shoulder injury, is also likely to see action as a replacement. With centres Dave McSharry and Kyle Tonetti are still struggling with injuries, Elwood is likely to retain Brian Murphy and Eoin Griffin in midfield.
Elwood is looking for a good start tomorrow evening to set them up for victory as they did in last weekend’s 26-22 victory against Cardiff. It was a significant win - the first time in 12 years that Connacht succeeded in taking the scalp of Cardiff Blues at Arms Park.
In outscoring the Blues by three tries to two, Connacht once again showed their attacking prowess, aided by 11 points from the boot of late replacement Miah Nikora.
They led 15 - 8 at the interval, thanks to a two-try blitz in the opening six minutes, before holding off the Blues in a tight second half.
Connacht took advantage of a free to attack the Blues' line with fullback Gavin Duffy supplying Danie Poolman who raced in from the 22 for the opening try - his fifth this season. Although Nikora missed the touchline conversion, he was on target three minutes later when adding the extras to Wille Faloon's first of two tries after Fetu Vainikolo off-loaded in the tackle from a midfield break.
However the Blues struck back within two minutes with a penalty from outhalf Rhys Patchell and, when the home side robbed a line-out metres from the Connacht line, left wing Harry Robinson finished off an expansive move, diving in the left corner after 20 minutes to narrow the gap to just four.
Connacht made hard work of the next 20 minutes squandering a couple of gilt-edged chances, but after good work by Vainikolo down the wing, the Blues backs strayed off side and Nikora potted the straightforward penalty to edge his side seven in front.
The Blues wrested control early in the second half with two early penalties, and although Nikora kept Connacht's noses in front with his second penalty of the evening, the Blues grabbed the lead for the first time when No 8 Robin Copeland raced in after Connacht failed to secure line-out.
Faloon, however, ensured Connacht regained the initiative when he crossed in the corner five minutes later for his second try before Patchell reduced the arrears once again with a penalty to ensure a tense final 10 minutes. Connacht were denied a fourth try when Gavin Duffy was shunted into touch metres out, but Nikora's 74th penalty ensured Elwood charges celebrated a worthy away win and their sixth of the season.
Yellow card: Connacht, J Harris-Wright (46m).
Connacht: G Duffy (cpt) D Poolman, E Griffin, B Murphy, F Vainikolo, M Nikora, K Marmion, B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wright, N White, M Swift, A Browne, J Muldoon, W Faloon, E McKeon. Replacements, D Buckley for White and R Loughney for Wilkinson, E Reynecke for Harris-Wright, M Kearney for McKeon and P O'Donohoe for Marmion.