Connacht look for redemption in Italy

Rain soaked and disappointed: Connacht captain after a frustrating evening at the Sportsground.

Rain soaked and disappointed: Connacht captain after a frustrating evening at the Sportsground.

Coach Andy Friend will be demanding a winning performance when Connacht head to Italy for the first time this season to face Michael Bradley's Zebre on Sunday (2.30pm ).

It recent years Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi in Parma has not been an easy hunting ground for Connacht as they have struggled to impose their game plan against the Italians' less structured play. However, after last weekend's loss in momentum following a 14-20 home defeat to Scarlets, Connacht will be primed for the demands Bradley's side is expected to pose.

With Italy's fixture with Fiji called off due to Covid-19 cases in the South Pacific camp, it is possible Zebre's Italian internationals may be available, and that would be a big boost after their dismal 14-57 loss in Parma last weekend to Ulster.

Thus Sunday's meeting has importance to both sides looking for some redemption.

Connacht lost momentum last weekend in their defeat to Scarlet, and forwards' coach Jimmy Duffy says it was a game they should have won.

"We crossed the line four times, as well as the two we scored, and didn't dot the ball down, held up on a couple of occasions, and a couple of knock-ons, and that is probably something for the individuals to reflect on, but we as a team would have an issue if we were not creating those opportunities.

"It was tough to watch, but on a night like that with the weather the way it was, to create those six scoring chances and only get two was a disappointment, but the positive is that we actually got across the line, so we will use that as motivation this weekend with a big focus on converting them."

Defensively Connacht will also have to be on their toes as Zebre enjoy attacking from deep, and Duffy says "the focus is not to give them easy outs and let them express themselves".

Connacht will still be without internationals Bundee Aki, Quinn Roux and Finlay Bealham who are named in Ireland's squad against England on Saturday, while it is yet not known if Kieran Marmion. Dave Heffernan, or Ultan Dillane will be made available. However, Friend will not want to take any chances for what has traditionally been a tricky assignment and one which is viewed as very much a must-win.

Certainly Connacht will be hoping for better weather than the torrential downpours which struck the Sportsground last weekend and produced a frustrating damp squib for Friend's outfit.

The losing bonus point was of little consolation as Scarlets leapt into second place behind Munster in Conference B.

Andy Friend was succinct in his assessment.

"I said at half time, rarely have I seen us out-enthused at the Sportground. It was embarrassing. Much much better in the second half, but you can't give a team like Scarlets 40 minutes to warm up and that much belief.

"Their execution was better than ours in the 22, and then we are chasing the game, and with the Galway weather coming in the way it did, definitely our fault and a lot of disappointed people."

The visitors struck in the seventh minute with Man of the match, fullback Johnny McNicoll injecting the pace before winger Ryan Conbeer crossed in the corner for an unconverted try.

Connacht, looking uncharacteristically shaky early on, used a scrum penalty to launch, and with Shane Delahunt and captain Jarrad Butler maintaining the momentum, No 8 Abraham Papali'i forced his way over for his debut try, with Jack Carty adding the extras for a 7-5 lead.

Then, however, Scarlets grabbed all the momentum, taking advantage of any opportunity leaked by the home side. McNicoll again provided the spark for Conbeer to bag his second try, before Dan Jones added a penalty for a 7-13 half-time lead. Although a strong direct run from Paul Boyle showed how Connacht planned to respond, Scarlets struck again, capitalising on an attempted chip to gain possession with Johnny McNicoll providing scrumhalf Dane Blacker who finished off for a 20-7 lead.

Thereafter Connacht, and the weather, threw everything at the Scarlets. Creating a host of scoring chances, all were too easily thwarted until Ultan Dillane touched down from a forward drive, and Carty's conversion closed the gap to 14-20.

Struggling to provide the clinical finishing, Connacht were denied another opportunity at the death, and that was as it good as it got for the home side.

Connacht : J Porch, A Wootton, S Arnold, T Daly, M Healy, J Carty, C Reilly; P McAllister, S Delahunt, C Kenny, U Dillane, G Thornbury, P Boyle, J Butler (C ), A Papali’i. Replacements: D Buckley for McAllister, K Marmion and J Aungier for Kenny ( all 45 ), C Oliver for Papali'i (45 ), E Masterson for (60 ), T Farrell for Arnold (63 ).

Scarlet s: J McNicholl; R Conbeer, S Hughes (C ), P Asquith, S Evans; D Jones, D Blacker; R Evans, T Davies, J Sebastian, S Lousi, M Jones, E Kennedy, J Morgan, S Kalamafoni. Replacements: D Hughes for T Davies, W Kruger for J Sebastian, P Price for Evans (all 54 ), T Morgan for Asquith(58 ). D Drake for Lousi (59m ), U Cassiem for Kennedy, W Homer for Blacker (68m ), A O’Brien for D Jones (68m ).

Referee: Sam Grove-EWhite (SRU ).


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