Bealham set for hundredth Connacht cap against Zebre tomorrow

Connacht cannot afford to let slip an opportunity to maintain momentum and widen the gap between themelves and Zebre when the sides meet at the Sportsground tomorrow evening (7.35pm ).

Last weekend's win over the Ospreys put some distance between Kieran Keane's chances and the chasing Swansea and Italian outfits, but more importantly it keeps the pressure on fourth-placed Cardiff, who are a single point in front.

Connacht will not be back at the Sportsground for a month, and it is crucial both the Connacht faithful and the squad leave the College Road venue tomorrow evening in a good place as they continue to have their sights on the visit of Gloucester at Easter. Before then, however, Connacht face a tough two weeks on the road, firstly against a firing Treviso in Italy, and then a first visit to the high altitude of South Africa's Bloemfontein, and they will be difficult assignments in their bid for Champions Cup qualification.

Firstly they need to avenge their 24-10 defeat to Zebre in December, which was one of Connacht's poorest displays, says defence coach Peter Wilkins.

"We knew it would be a challenge going over there [in December], but we felt that day we didn't deliver. We played without the bounce, energy, and enthusiasm we display on our good days. It wasn't through lack of a focus, concentration or respect for Zebre, we just didn't deliver.

"They were hungrier and sharper and we need to put it right. We have that opportrunity here at the Sportsground this week, and everyone is motivated."

The fixture will mark Finlay Bealham's 100th game for the province - a special achievement for the 26-year-old Australian born prop who has blossomed since joining the Connacht Academy four seasons ago.

Having fully recovered from a "knee niggle", Bealham will be one of few changes Connacht are expected to make when Zebre coach Michael Bradley returns to the Sportsground where he coached for seven seasons.

Momentum

Wilkins says the fixture is about building on the momentum of the past seven successive Sportsground wins, while keeping an eye on the two-week trip to Italy and South Africa.

"We are not looking at making too many changes because it is important we maintain the success we have had at home over the last few months. We are in a good position with guys fresh after the break, and we want to go away for two weeks with as many as possible players who are match fit and fresh. It is about how we balance and reintegrate players into the squad."

Two players returned to training this week, Jarrad Butler and Niyi Adeolokun, while Tiernan O'Halloran, who tweaked his hamstring last week, will miss tomorrow's fixture. Having just returned to action following a long layoff with an Achilles injury, Andrew Browne took a bang to his shoulder and will be sidelined for up to six weeks.

"This week, it is all about beating Zebre, and our decision making in attack and defence will be crucial," Wilkins says.

Connacht will look to take control of the game early on, and defensively will need to be disciplined against an Italian side that loves to run. On more than one occasion Connacht has been caught against this side, but if they stop the Italians from winning the collisions and getting front foot ball, they will go some way to denting their aspirations.

Tempo

Both sides like to play at tempo which always makes for an entertaining encounter, but defence will be key, as it was last week against the Ospreys, if Connacht want to win an eighth successive win at the Sportsground.

Last Saturday's important win ensured Connacht stretched their lead over Ospreys. Kieran Keane's side made full use of home advantage, and were more efficient with limited possession against an Ospreys side that dominated for long periods.

However Connacht's two tries and 16 points from outhalf Craig Ronaldson were enough to put some more distance between themselves and both Ospreys and tomorrow's visitors Zebre.

Kieran Keane was more than happy to take the four points.

"Thrilled with the result, but a pretty scratchy performance. The try at half time was compelling, and it bouyed us at the break," he said.

Connacht had opened after 10 minutes when Ronaldson potted a penalty after an earlier effort hit off the upright, but they lost some momentum when both fullback Tiernan O'Halloran (hamstring ), and Andrew Browne ( shoulder ) were forced to retire in the opening minutes. It helped Ospreys to establish a foothold in the game and after blocking down an attempted Connacht clearance, they went through the phases before left wing Da Howells crossed after 19 minutes.

Connacht replied almost immediately with a second Ronaldson three-pointer, but thereafter the Swansea outfit continued to dominate. Although asking questions of Connacht under the high ball, they were unable to crack a resolute home defence.

It was not until the close of the half that a penalty to touch gave Connacht some vital field position, and they made the Ospreys pay for their lack of discipline. From a penalty to touch the Connacht pack continued to push forward until flanker Eoghan Masterson forced his way through, and Ronaldson nailed the conversion for a somewhat fortuitous 13-5 half-time lead.

Tom Farrell

Connacht weathered an early second-half siege from the visitors, whose lack of discipline once again proved costly when right wing Hanno Dirksen was binned for a late tackle on Caolan Blade. Ronaldson made no mistake to stretch Connacht's lead to 16-5 before Sam Davis replied with a penalty to leave eight between the sides again.

Connacht, however, with limited territorial control, sealed the victory in the 68th minute when centre Tom Farrell stepped inside his opposite number to race in for try number two, and Ronaldson's conversion put the home side in front 23-8.

Ospreys were rewarded for a try in the 71st minute when replacement scrumhalf Williams Rueben Morgan crossed, but there was no respite when Ronaldson kicked his fourth penalty for Connacht's fifth PRO 14 win.

Connacht: T O'Halloran, E Griffin, T Farrell, M Healy, C Ronaldson, C Blade, D Coulson, T McCartney, C Carey, A Browne, J Cannon, EMasterson, N Dawai, J Muldoon (capt ). Replacements: C Kelleher for O'Halloran, G Thornbury for Browne (15m ), D Robertson-McCoy for Carey, P McCabe for Coulson, T McCartney for Coulson ( 60m ), J Mitchell for Blade (70m ), J Carty for Farrell (72 ), J Connolly for Masterson (75 ).

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