Greater expectations surround Connacht’s second Heineken Cup campaign which begins on Saturday with a return visit to Italian newcomers Zebre.
Having already claimed a RaboDirect Pro 12 win in Parma, Connacht head to Italy knowing what is needed to open this year’s cup campaign is a win. Any thing else will be seen as a backward step for the Irish side which also faces Europe’s third ranked side Biarritz and English champions Harlequins in pool three.
It is a measure of Connacht’s development that where there was once hope, there is now expectation, and the pressure is on the players to deliver once again in Stadio XXV Aprile where they won 30-17 in a tough encounter earlier in the season.
“We definitely feel it’s a must-win game,” says coach Eric Elwood. “We are putting pressure on ourselves because it is our first game in this year’s Heineken Cup and, if we are looking to build on last year’s experience, then we are targeting this match.”
Elwood is warning his players to prepare for a tough encounter, not only in defence where Zebre’s back three are highly dangerous, but also up front.
“Zebre have changed their style of play and not only do they pose a huge threat in their backline, but they have a very strong set piece. This is a game where we need to have our mind set to match them physically.
“After last year when there was so much euphoria being our first year in the Heineken Cup, there isn’t the same buzz about this match, particularly having played Zebre in the league already. It may not be the glamour fixture, but it is our first match in this season’s Heineken Cup and it is their first ever match in the tournament, so it’s a must-win for both sides and there is extra pressure.”
Assistant coach Dan McFarland says Zebre is a dangerous side, but Connacht have the armoury if they get their game right.
“There is a huge difference this year - there was no expecation in what we were doing in the Heineken Cup last year - this year, having been over there once already and with them having not won a game, there is a huge expecation on what we can do - none more than in the group of players we have.
“We think we have the game plan and the armoury to win a match over there - it is a question of putting it into practice.”
Elwood will name his starting line-up tomorrow, but out of action are captain Gavin Duffy, Andrew Browne, Dave Nolan, scumhalves Paul O’Donohoe and Frank Murphy, and centres Kyle Tonetti and Danie Poolman. Eoin McKeown must undergo further fitness testing.
No changes are expected to the backline, but there could be some tinkering in the pack. In the front row Denis Buckley and Nathan White could expect to start, particularly after their second-half appearance against Ulster steadied the scrum last week, while Ethienne Reynecke is a possible starter having returned from injury.
In their earlier meeting the Italians, backed by a strong home support, showed considerable determination and no lack of skill, particularly in their ability to counterattack. As a result Connacht’s strength in defence will once again be tested, as will Dan Parks’ tactical kicking, while Several Zebre players will need monitoring - right wing Sinoti Sinoti, Italian international Mauro Bergamasco, and Australian utility back Daniel Halangahu, who won 75 caps in Super Rugby.
Connacht’s backs coach Billy Millard says Zebre, although without a league win to date, are an improving side.
“Zebre have got better, and we will have to play smart against them. If you play into their hands, you can struggle to get your game going. We think we have them worked out, but that is half the battle, we have to execute it,” he says.
As the new Italian franchise - formerly Aironi - this is their first foray into Heineken Cup rugby, and Connacht flanker John Muldoon is expecting a tough afternoon.
“I think the fact that they are in the same situation as we were last year - their first time in the Heineken Cup - that they will be excited and looking forward to it. And, having pushed us close before, they will think they threw the game away and that could make them more boisterous and make it a better atmosphere
“ They are where we were last year - there is no expectation on them, but it’s a different burden for us. It’s something we have to deal with and we have to come out and produce the goods.”
Crucially Connacht’s set piece will need to be strong to provide the platform and foothold on the game, while their defence, which has been strong all season, must remain organised and composed. Connacht need a mature performance on Saturday to see them open their Heineken Cup campaign with a victory.
Last weekend Connacht could not back up their win over Leinster when they travelled to league leaders Ulster. Struggling in the scrum, unable to gain a foothold, and having conceded a host of penalties, Connacht were only three points in arrears by the 34th minute.
However a yellow card to Dave Gannon and a subsequent penalty try turned the tables in Ulster’s favour and Connacht never recovered. By the break Nick Williams had added a second try for a 17 - 0 lead, and although Connacht’s defence kept the home side out for much of the second half, a Luke Marshall try at the death gave Ulster the 25 - 0 win.
“I don’t think we did ourselves justice,” said Dan McFarland. “ We started the game poorly with a lack of composure and discipline, but having said that after 34 minutes we were still in the game. However a yellow card that resulted in a try, and then indiscipline cost us another try, and it was all over. We struggled up front in the scrum in the first half, but it was against a good side that was on their game. We have to respect them for the quality they put out and the quality of play againt us.”
Connacht: R Henshaw; T O'Halloran, E Griffin, D McSharry (M Fifita 68 ), F Vainikolo; D Parks (M Nikora 67 ), K Marmion (D Moore 57 ); B Wilkinson (D Buckley 41 ), A Flavin (J Harris-Wright 60 ), R Loughney (N White 35 ); M Swift, M McCarthy; D Gannon (J Muldoon 47 ), W Faloon (J O’Connor 57 ), G Naoupu.
Ulster: J Payne; T Bowe, D Cave, P Wallace, A Trimble (C Gilroy 67 ); P Jackson (L Marshall 70 ), P Marshall (M Heaney 73 ); T Court ( C Black 70 ), R Best (R Herring 58 ), J Afoa; J Muller (L Stevenson 67 ), D Tuohy; S Ferris (M McComish 67 ), C Henry, N Williams (A Macklin 77 ).