Returning Ronaldson and new recruits will boost Connacht

Craig Ronaldson, in training this week, is set to return to action for Connacht against Zebre, relieving pressure on the outhalf position due to Jack Carty’s injury.

Craig Ronaldson, in training this week, is set to return to action for Connacht against Zebre, relieving pressure on the outhalf position due to Jack Carty’s injury.

Connacht, a little more positive on the injury front, face familiar Italian foes Zebre in the Galway Sportsground's final Champions Cup pool fixture this season.

A win is necessary, and a bonus point realistic, against a side to which they have never lost. And Saturday is certainly not the day to waiver if Connacht want to head to Toulouse next weekend with a quarter-final place up for grabs. More will be known of what Connacht need to do after this weekend's round five when favourites Wasps host the French outfit.

It has been a difficult few weeks for Connacht, decimated by injuries, and now having suffered their third Pro 12 defeat in a row - their latest a 29-7 loss to Ospreys in Wales.

Still stretched at outhalf, the second row and midfield, Connacht, however, have gone some way to alleviate the immediate injury crisis with the recruitment of three players ahead of Saturday's must-win European Champions Cup fixture.

Former Leinster Academy and Lansdowne centre Tom Farrell, who joined the squad this week from Bedford Blues, has been added to the European squad, replacing long term injured Academy player Cormac Brennan. Farrell is contracted till the end of the season, as is 23-years-old outhalf Steve Crosbie, who comes in after a short term contract with Munster. However both Crosbie and on-loan Munster prop Peter McCabe, are cup tied and will not be involved in European fixtures.

Ultan Dillane remains unavailable for a month, despite positive news that his ankle sprain does not require surgery, but Quinn Roux is being monitored for a groin strain. And with Ben Marshall and Andrew Browne still unavailable, new recruit James Cannon is likely to lead the line-out calls this weekend.

Openside Jake Heenan is also unavailable, having suffered a minor knee strain, while centre Peter Robb is undergoing concussion protocols, joining Bundee Aki, Eoin Griffin, and Stacey Ili on the sidelines. Outhalf Jack Carty, with a knee ligament strain in last weekend's loss to the Ospreys, will not be taking part, but forwards coach Jimmy Duffy says the injury is not as serious as first thought.

Fortunately former outhalf Craig Ronaldson, who has been more regularly used as an inside centre, has been fully integrated into training and is expected to be available, and more good news is that talismanic captain John Muldoon is set to lead Connacht for his 289th cap having missed last weekend fixture's.

Prop Dominic Robertson McCoy, and uncapped fullback Josh Rowland have also returned to training this week after long lay-offs, while new recruit, prop John Andress, has also been added to the European squad as frontrow cover.

Duffy says a number of options are now available for the outhalf position. Last weekend scrumhalf Caolan Blade stepped into the role, with fellow No 9 John Cooney taking over the kicking duties, but now Ronaldson is reported to be "in good shape and progressing well", having recovered from a thigh injury against Cardiff last November.

"We are relatively happy with the options available now. Craig is back into full team training and is going to do a full session today. It's good for Craig, he's had a tough time, so we are delighted for him to get back into the training routine."

New recruit Tom Farrell, who is "upskilling on plays and patterns", may also make his debut.

"We have been monitoring him for a couple of years," says Duffy. "He brings a number of skills we admire and something we feel we need, so we are delighted to have him involved."

Zebre may be the ideal occasion to blood some new players, but Duffy is adamant Connacht are not taking anything for granted against the Italians, despite posting a 7-52 victory in Parma in round two. Zebre were woeful against Leinster in the Pro 12 last weekend, but they always arrive in Galway with the bit between their teeth.

With pool 2 leaders Wasps, Toulouse and Connacht all level on points, Connacht will be looking to post a bonus point win before heading to Toulouse.

"We have massive respect for Zebre, so we are staying focused. As a group we have identified our start, but it is something against Zebre you want to get right. We never take Zebre lightly and never will because from my perspective up front, there are quality players and internationals, including two international tightheads.

"We haven't mentioned the five points, our sole focus is to perform. If we perform, we should be a good position to gain a win and if there is five points on offer, 100 per cent we will go for it. But the main focus is winning the game and respecting the opposition."

That performance is key after conceding two early converted tries to Ospreys last weekend. In the end Connacht did well to keep the Welsh outfit to 29 points given the injury list, but had they converted an early chance, it could have changed the complexion of the game, and possibly the result.

Instead Connacht were badly caught defensively against an Ospreys side that looked more reminiscent of the champions last season- creating line-breaks and support lines that proved testing.

Ospreys added a Davies penalty after the break, but a lost Connacht line-out proved costly as the home side capitalised with a try from prop Nicky Smith.

Connacht never gave up and were rewarded with a consolation try from Sean O'Brien, but there was no getting away from the superb form of the Ospreys, nailing the bonus point try to take the lead of the Pro 12 while an automatic top six is looking beyond Connacht's grasp.



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