Connacht host their final pool game of this season’s Heineken Cup - and possibly their last if participating countries fail to agree on the competition’s future - but Pat Lam’s squad has huge incentive to achieve another victory on Saturday (3.40pm).
With two wins from their four pool-three outings - including that famous victory over Toulouse - Connacht are still very much involved in this competition. Joint pool leaders on 15 points, Toulouse and Saracens, face each other in France - thus ensuring Connacht need to maintain their unbeaten record over Zebre to ensure they have something to play for in the last round against Saracens.
Although Connacht have never lost to the Italians, a victory is certainly not a given on Saturday. Connacht did post their best result in the second round in Parma with a 33-6, but in previous outings, Connacht have needed to eke out a win against this resolute side. And with the Italians having posted a victory over Treviso last weekend to push Connacht back to the bottom of the Pro 12, this is a team that will be travelling to Galway brimming with confidence and hunger.
Pat Lam acknowledges the Zebre side that lines out in the Sportsground will be a different one from previous occasions.
“They have improved as the season has progressed and their games with us have been pretty tight. Obviously they were not overly happy with what we did in the last game over there, but they have a lot of confidence,” he says.
“Looking at their videos, they should have won both games against Treviso so last week’s win is a good boost for them. They also have good players and there is a big difference when Brendan Leonard plays as well.”
However Lam says Connacht’s focus is about getting their own game right.
“The excitement for us is that we need to focus on ourselves to win the game and keep our hopes alive.
“ If you are alive in that last week, then all options are open to you because you never know what may happen in other results. `Our main objective is to come away with the points - however they come.”
Lam is expected to welcome back influential young openside flanker Jake Heenan, who was sidelined with a shoulder injury after Connacht's victory over the Dragons and missed both Christmas interprovincials. Outhalf Craig Ronaldson may be available after fitness testing, while fullback Gavin Duffy has recovered from his shoulder strain and, alongside Frank Murphy, is available for selection. Although captain Craig Clarke suffered a neck strain, the former Super 15 winning captain is expected to recover fully for this pool 3 fixture. This week he and his wife Veree also celebrated the birth of their first child, a daughter born in Galway.
Lam says it is a privilege to play in the Heineken Cup. “It is a special one [competition] and I had the opportunity as a player to win it, but as a coach it is another chance to keep building on what we are trying to do as a team.”
To achieve another win over Zebre, Connacht will once again have to be at their collective best, cutting down the amount of turnovers, aggressive at the breakdown, defensively strong - they have accumulated the highest number of missed tackles in the group - and ensure they take their chances. Dan Parks has currently posted the highest number of drop goals (3) and penalties (11), but Lam is concerned with his squad’s kicking record in the Pro 12.
“It is an area of concern - 59 per cent in the Rabo and the next lowest is 68 per cent. It is one of the areas we need to address. Our decisions to kick were good, but the execution of the kicks was not. It is an important part of the game and it is an area we are working on.”
Although Connacht missed four kicks at goal against Leinster, they led 8-3 courtesy of a well-executed try in the 22nd minute. And with Connacht’s young backline, that included Darragh Leader at fullback and Jack Carty in his first at outhalf, catching the eye, they outfoxed the Leinster defence, which was perhaps too quick off the mark. It allowed Robbie Henshaw to break through Brian O’Driscoll’s channel before Fionn Carr provided the finish. Carty and Ian Madigan exchanged penalties just before the interval, before replacement Leinster outhalf Jimmy Gopperth nailed two in eight minutes to take a 9-8 lead - the second penalty coming after an unseen knock-on from No 8 Jamie Heaslip. The game took a contentious turn when Heaslip felled Parks - without the ball and with his shoulder - usually a yellow card offence. However in this instance the Irish captain escaped with a penalty, which Parks missed, and Leinster saw out the game with a Gordon D’Arcy try - with the TMO ruling there had been no forward pass, Leinster winning 16 - 8.
Lam lamented some of the referee’s decisions.
“The biggest frustration is that because of who we are - and I say we have to work hard for everything - but when you are 8-3 up and that goes to 8-6 for a marginal call for offside and there are so many incidents for offside that haven’t been picked up, that becomes frustrating.
“Then 8-6 goes to 8-9 when there is a crooked feed in the scrum, the No 8 loses the ball, and game carries on. So its 8-9 and everyone knows that it [Heaslip’s late tackle] is a yellow card, even the citing commissioner after the game says it is yellow, so that is hard to take because at a crucial time of the match, they are not down to 14 men which would have put the pressure on them. The guy who should be in the bin helps create some of the stuff they do, because obviously he’s a quality player, so you lose that opportunity. Then there is a forward pass - the player was already in front when the pass was made. I feel for our players.”
Lam believes Connacht are treated differently by referees.
“OK in one-off games, but they are accumulating game after game. I feel very frustrated for our players because of conversions that are had with our players [by refs] - very much told to be quiet and not say anything, just do as you are told - compared to the conversations to other teams who have the stars. All of those things become an issue, particularly the derby games.”
Connacht v Leinster: D Leader, F Carr, E Griffin, R Henshaw, M Healy, J Carty, K Marmion, B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wright, N White, M Kearney, C Clarke (cpt), A Browne, J Muldoon, E McKeon. Replacements, D Heffernan, D Buckley, R Ah You, M Swift, G Naoupu, P O’Donohoe, D Parks, T O’Halloran.