Connacht not taking Zebre lightly

Connacht head to Italy this weekend to face Zebre, looking for their 10th Pro !2 victory to maintain their push for Champions Cup rugby.

There are no fresh injuries following their bonus-point win away to Newport, but both Bundee Aki and Aly Muldowney are suffering from chest infections. Lock Ben Marshall, who has been out of action for several months with a fractured arm, is fit and available, while Jack Carty has returned to Ireland after surgery to remove his spleen in Dubai following a waterside accident and will continue his recovery.

Expected to win, Connacht have never lost to the Parma-based Italian side, but Connacht coach Pat Lam says they are not be taking them lightly.

"We have done really well against Zebre in my time here, because we have paid them the right respect and we have prepared. I learned that when we lost to Trevis in my first year, if you drop your standards, you will pay the price.

"We understand the table at the moment, there is a split starting to happen, but every team has to get their points and we know how important it is and that is what we focus on.

"They have improved considerably, they have beaten Treviso back to back and knocked over a few, and they are hard at home. We always go in the game knowing that if we tick off the boxes during the week, we won't fall into the trap of being complacent."

As always Lam is expected to tough battle up front, and knows Connacht will need to keep their structures and their lines intact to maintain control.

"The Italians are always tough up front and physical so if we don't manage that our defence and our breakdown, and the game gets loose, it becomes a big of a dogfight.

"We want the four or five points. At this stage of the season there are nine teams, possibly 10, that can make the top six, so every game is crucial."

Connacht go into the game level on points with Pro 12 leaders Ulster. Their 26-21 win over Newport Gwent Dragons last week was hard earned, but a valuable five-pointer away from home.

While not Connacht's best performance, coach Pat Lam said it was a reflection of their season.

"We didn't play well at all, but to come away with five points - that's three on the trot now - says a lot about their character. That game reflected our season - there was some really good stuff and some things we didn't do quite well - but the adversity and problem solving out there when you consider some of the players who are missing, there was a mix of our whole season there."

The Dragons kept Connacht on their toes throughout. Outhalf Jason Tovey opened the scoring with a penalty in the 10th minute before Connacht finally gained some territorial control. And they made it count with a superb try from Matt Healy who broke through the cover at pace, supplied by captain John Muldoon. Centre Craig Ronaldson converted before the Dragons were gifted their first try. Centre Adam Hughes charged down an attempted clearance from scrumhalf Caolin Blade, racing clear from the 22 to touch down, with fullback Geraint Rhys Jones adding the extras.

Connacht regained the lead with their second attack when from a scrum penalty, the pack mauled forward before the ball was sent wide with fullback Tiernan O'Halloran crossing, and Ronaldson converting. However within minutes the lively Dragons were back on the attack with right wing Ashton Hewitt crossing, and replacement outhalf Angus O'Brien adding the conversion.

O'Brien stretched the lead with a penalty after the break as indiscipline started to prove costly for Pat Lam's men. Even in possession Connacht's usual clinical edge was missing as errors started to mount, and O'Brien added another penalty to keep the Dragons in control by the 56th minute.

The introduction of Connacht's three Ireland squad members added impetus to Connacht's attack and from a penalty to touch, there was no stopping the forward march with No 8 Eoghan Masterson adding his name to the scoresheet. Connacht remained in the driving seat and grabbed a fourth try when Bundee Aki forced his way over, with man of the match Ronaldson adding the conversion to put Connacht into a five-point lead and another win on the road.

Connacht Rugby: T O'Halloran, D Poolman, B Aki, C Ronaldson, M Healy, A MacGinty, C Blade, B Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You, A Muldowney, G Naoupu, J Muldoon (cpt ), J Heenan, E Masterson. Replacements, F Bealham for Ah You and K Marmion for Bladle (45 ), U Dillane for Naoupu (55 ), E McKeon for Heenan (63 ), R Parata for Poolman (68 ), P Robb for MacGinty (80 ).

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