Disappointing European loss puts all Connacht's focus on the PRO14

Connacht's minds are now concentrated solely on Guinness PRO14 action, and the first of the final trio of conference games sees Andy Friend's side travel to Italy to take on Michael Bradley's Zebre on Saturday (6.30pm Irish time ).

Having left a European semi-final behind them last weekend, and with it another path to Champions Cup rugby next season, Connacht's only means of qualifying under their own steam rests with the PRO14 championship - thus no slip-ups allowed.

And this week coach Andy Friend will not be taking risks with his selection. Expect to see the province's tried and tested, bar Ireland players Bundee Aki and Quinn Roux, who are unavailable due to Ireland player management protocols.

Outhalf Jack Carty is fit, having recovered from a bicep injury - similar to a dead leg - suffered in Connacht's disappointing 20-10 Challenge Cup defeat to Sale Sharks, and Connacht back's coach Nigel Carolan, says his withdrawal in the second half was precautionary.

Definitely ruled out is Finlay Bealham, who could well miss the remainder of the season. The tighthead prop was to have another scan on Monday evening to reassess the hand injury.

"He was never going to be in contention this weekend, it will be touch-and-go the following week, but we are optimistic for Munster in three weeks."

Bealham's replacement, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, was also suffering back spasms, but Carolan is confident he will be fully fit.

Other key players back after are Tiernan O'Halloran, Jarrad Butler, Ultan Dillane, Denis Buckley, Eoin McKeon, Colbt Fainga'a, Peter Robb, Tom Farrell, and Matt Healy.

Currently locked in a battle with Cardiff for third in Conference A, Connacht will be hoping Munster, after progressing to the Heineken Cup semi-finals, will beat the Welsh outfit in Cork tomorrow night.

"The pressure is on us to perform and the focus is purely on ourselves. We are not going to take the foot off the pedal this Saturday. If Munster can do us a favour on Friday night against Cardiff, it will help, but we have job to do on Saturday and we are not looking beyond that.

"The game plan is simple, it is to be direct. They are a dangerous team and we cannot afford to be loose. That is what has happened in the past.

"Historically Connacht do not have a good record over there, so our game has to be focused, direct, and one we can implement that will punish them, and that is where our focus is."

Defeat in the last two seasons in Parma is a clear warning that Connacht cannot take anything for granted against a Zebre side with nothing to play for but pride.

Carolan admitted Connacht lacked cohesion against Sale last Friday night in the Challenge Cup semi-final, not helped by so many changes.

"We made 11 changes, and there is always a risk when you do that. The momentum swings are huge as well. You do need experience [players], but you also need to trust the systems, and not try to force it, and that was one of the biggest learnings in terms of our review, not forcing it, not playing from too deep.

It was the fourth year in succession Connacht had qualified for the Challenge Cup quarter-finals, but history repeated itself at the AJ Bell Stadium, when they lost to the English Premiership side for the second time this season.

Steve Diamond's Sale did all the damage in the first half to deny Connacht a fourth semi-final in this competition. They bossed the exchanges, easily handled Connacht's ponderous attack, and produced a performance that had Andy Friend's side on the backfoot throughout.

AJ MacGinty

Former Connacht outhalf AJ McGinty, just back from injury, kicked 11-first half points, helping Sale to a 20-3 half-time lead from which Connacht would never recover. That Connacht persevered after half-time, and slowly started to reap rewards, is testament to the team's growing character, but ultimately they came up short.

Connacht had gone into the dressing rooms at half time 17-points in arrears, having nearly pulled off the perfect start. Within minutes Carty had intercepted an attacking Sale pass inside the Connacht 22. Running the length of the pitch, he was almost at the line when he was hauled down a metre from the posts by Denny Solomona. Although Kyle Godwin was one of three players up in support, the Aussie centre could not control Carty's attempted pass that went to ground, and the opportunity was lost.

It turned out to be the closest Connacht would come to penetrating the Sale defence in the opening half, and although Carty opened the scoring minutes later, Steve Diamond's side took control for the remainder of the half.

Left wing Byron McGuigan finished off an expansive move in the corner, and MacGinty knocked over the conversion for a 7-5 lead. There were more signs of danger for Connacht when they conceded a scrum penalty, providing the hosts with another platform to attack. And the result from a penalty to touch was a try in the right corner by Solomona. As influential forwards James Phillips and Jono Ross sucked in the defence, MacGinty was able to spot the gap, sending a floating pass for Solomona to finish, and the Sale outhalf added the touchline conversion.

Connacht struggled to get control of proceedings, not helped by unforced errors, but a series of drives proved fruitful when Sale, slowing the ball at the ruck, were penalised, but on this occasion the Connacht outhalf sent his kick wide of the posts.

Unable to gain momentum and on the backfoot, Connacht conceded another penalty for not releasing at the breakdown with MacGinty adding another three points.

Some relief

As the penalties against Andy Friend's side continued to mount, the Dublin native added another three-pointer on 33 minutes to extend the English Premiership's side to 20-3.

A rare penalty against Sale for crossing in the maul - the same penalty which handed Connacht victory in the Sportsground in October - gave Connacht some relief, but the mistakes kept mounting, denying Connacht even one sniff at the line over the 40 minutes.

It was not Connacht's night when Carty was forced to retire after the restart, and to make matters worse another opportunity to kickstart a second-half revival failed when Connacht spurned a kick at goal, and Godwin's kick for touch went dead.

When Sale lost James Phillips to the sin-bin for a high tackle on Godwin, Connacht finally breached the Sale line, with Godwin grabbing a try, and Darragh Leader the conversion to reduce the arrears to 20-10 with 10 minutes remaining. It was as good as Connacht could do on a trying and disapppointing evening for the Irish province

Sale Sharks: L James, D Solomona, S James, R Janse van Rensburg, B McGuigan, AJ MacGinty, F De Klerk, R Harrison, R Webber, J Jones, B Evans, J Phillips, J Ross (c ), T Curry, J Beaumont.Replacements: C Redpath for Van Rensburge (HIA 5m-15m ), B Curry for T Curry (49m ), C Langdon for Webber (60 ), A Tarus for Jones (62 ), J Strauss for Phillips (70 ), C Redparth for MacGinty (79m, ).

Connacht Rugby: D Leader, N Adeolokun, K Godwin, B Aki, C Kelleher, J Carty, K Marmion, P McCabe, T McCartney (c ), D Robertson-McCoy, J Cannon, G Thornbury, E Masterson, J Connolly, P Boyle.Replacements, F Bealham for Robertson McCoy (26 ), Maksymiw for Thornbury (42-48 ), T Daly for Carty (45 ), S Fitzgerald for Adeolokun and R Copeland for Masterson (both 54 ), C Blade for Marmion, D Heffernan for McCartney and Maksymiw for Cannon (all 60m ), D Buckley McCabe (63 ), T McCartney for Bealham (80 ).

Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France )


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