Connacht are not taking Sunday’s opponents Zebre lightly when the two clash in the RaboDirect Pro 12 in Parma.
Despite a 100 per cent return from their seven matches with the Italians to date, Sunday’s fixture has all the hallmarks of a cup final.
Last weekend’s Connacht’s hard-earned win over Edinburgh ensured they leapfrogged Zebre in the league. And now Pat Lam’s side need to carve out their eighth victory if they do not want to make a swift return to the bottom of the table.
Lam, still without a host of regular players, is unlikely to make many changes from the side that prevailed by 11-7 over Edinburgh at the Sportsground. The main casualty from that fixture was Ronan Loughney, who was forced off with a calf injury. Andrew Browne suffered a rib strain, but should be fully fit, while Danie Poolman is available and will be included in the travelling squad. Dave Nolan, after a lengthy spell on the sidelines, is also back with the squad having played for club fixtures, while it is hoped Gavin Duffy will also be fully fit to travel.
Lam says despite Connacht’s strong record against Zebre, his squad cannot afford to take anything for granted.
“It has been discussed this week Our focus is on getting the win, but around that sits complacency, expecation, etc, so we need to focus on what we have to do collectively to get the win,” he says.
“Zebre have certainly changed a lot since we played them. Although the scorelines at the end have been favaourable, we have come away pretty frustrated from some of those games. They will back this game too at home and the expectation is on us, so we weed to have a good week.”
Lam says the youngsters need to front up again.
“There is a lot of experience missing, but guys needs to step up. Certainly it’s a place where guys have been, so that helps.”
On the last occasion Connacht swept Zebre away with a dominant Heineken Cup performance to win by 33-6. On that occasion Dan Parks nailed 14 points before the break, while two forward tries were engineered by assistant coach Dan McFarland.
AConnacht’s pack was once again to the fore against Edinburgh with Michael Swift’s second-half try ensuring the home side bagged a much-needed Pro 12 win
Understandably Lam was relieved to see his struggling side lift themselves off the bottom of the table.
"We needed a winner regardless of how it came about, so everyone is relieved and happy. The bottom line was we needed the four points. We knew it would get us off the bottom of the table and now we have a bit of work to do as we head to Parma again.
"We have already beaten them three times this season [twice in the Heineken Cup], so realistically, if we do the work and our jobs, there is no reason whey we shouldn't get the four points and keep climbing the table."
Two continuing worries for Lam are his side's poor goal-kicking record, and mounting injuries. Outhalf Craig Ronaldson missed three penalty opportunities and a conversion that could have put daylight between the sides - two hitting the uprights. And up front Jason Harris-Wright and replacement prop Ronan Loughney were both forced to depart with niggles. However Denis Buckley and Rodney Ah You fronted up in a pack that once again provided the platform for this victory.
"I have to make special mention of Buckley and Ah You who have sat behind Wilkinson and White. Last week they were not overly happy with their output, but they really stepped it up."
Edinburgh's Alan Solomons, not happy with the one-sided penalty count, claimed his side had been blown off the park. They scored their only points in the eighth minute when Nick de Luca did the damage, capitalising on a midfield turnover before flanker Roddy Grant crashed over from their first foray into the Connacht 22. Outhalf Carl Bezuidenhout - one of six South Africans in the Scottish XV - converted for a 7-0 lead.
Connacht's first reply came courtesy of a Ronaldson penalty from their dominant scrum, but despite five more first-half penalties and considerable endeavor, the home side failed to add any more points as Edinburgh edged the aerial contest.
The turning point came seven minutes after the restart when Connacht opted to kick for touch from a succession of penalties. And with Edinburgh's No 8 Cornell de Preez binned, the home side took advantage and veteran Michael Swift eventually dived over. With a one-point lead, Connacht maintained the initiative, kept control of the possession, and extended the lead with a Dan Parks' penalty to give them a four-point cushion heading into the final 10 minutes.
Connacht Rugby: R Henshaw, F Carr, E Griffin, D McSharry, T O'Halloran, C Ronaldson, K Marmion, D Buckley, J Harris-Wright, R Ah You, M Kearney, M Swift, A Browne, J Heenan, J Muldoon (cpt). Replacements, D Heffernan for Harris-Wright (50m), D Parks for McSharry (52m), A Muldowney for Swift (63m), R Loughney for Ah You (65m), D Leader for Henshaw (68m), G Naoupu for Browne (71m), R Ah You for Loughney (72m).