Lam's one departing hope is Connacht’s qualification for Champions Cup

Lewis Stevenson scores Connact's fifth try in the Guinness Pro12 game against Zebre at the Sporstground on Friday night. 		Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

Lewis Stevenson scores Connact's fifth try in the Guinness Pro12 game against Zebre at the Sporstground on Friday night. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

Connacht celebrated a fourth win in a row with a 33-3 trouncing of Zebre - their longest sequence of wins this season - to continue their momentum towards their seasonal goal of Champions Cup rugby.

That Connacht have now overtaken Cardiff into seventh place is testament to their improving injury list and form, but it now looks increasingly likely that even a sixth place finish will no longer ensure automatic qualification, and it will require a play-off against French and English opponents.

Under the rules each country in the Pro 12 must have one representative in the Champions Cup - thus no matter where the sides finish, the Italians will have either Treviso or Zebre (if they still exist ), and Scotland will have either Glasgow or Edinburgh. Even if Connacht close the gap on Glasgow - seven points in front - it will make no difference and so the bar becomes even higher. To finish in fifth place requires overtaking Ulster, who are currently 13 points ahead in that position.

Ut is a scenario for which Connacht are preparing as coach Pat Lam wraps up a successful four years before moving to Bristol.

"Our main goal, and it's in our strategic plan, is that Connacht Rugby has to be playing Champions Cup," says Lam

"It's the one thing, before I leave I want Connacht to be in the Champions Cup next year. So that is the goal, whether that comes through automatic [qualification] - unfortunately the way the competition is the top seven don't make it through - or whether for the playoff, no one knows. But all we can control is to keep picking up wins and see what happens."

Coming at this crucial time of the season, the improving injury list is a huge boost.

"We now rest for two weeks before Glasgow, and we are under no illusions what is coming up with three away games, and we will prepare accordingly."

Connacht's latest victory over Zebre was notable for the atrocious weather and the return of two key players after long term injuries, lock Andrew Browne and back row Eoghan Masterson.

"Really pleased with Masterson, I though he did a great shift, and Andrew Browne. Dominic Robertson-Mccoy showed the potential he has, Stacey Ili, playing in the conditions, did really well, Lewis Stephenson was tremendous as well, so it was great to see guys put their hands up for what is coming up."

Such were the conditions that some 2,000 ticket holders stayed away from the Sportsground which had passed a ground inspection.

And for a second time this season both sides were forced to play in near unplayable conditions before Connacht finished with a worthy five-try haul.

Connacht had opened with a try after seven minutes, capitalising on territorial control and possession before a solid scrum set up the scoring platform for right wing Niyi Adeolokun to score in the corner with scrumhalf John Cooney adding the touchline conversion.

With handling difficult in the conditions, Connacht abandoned their trademark counterattacking from deep in preference for territory finders. It ensured Connacht were playing in the right areas, and with Lewis Stephenson and Andrew Browne putting in big shifts in the pack to secure possession, and the defence put the Italians under pressure, it was only a matter of time before Connacht would score again. Unfortunately flanker Eoin McKeon was denied for having interfered with scrumhalf Guiglielmo Palazzani in the race for the ball after centre Tom Farrell's lockdown, but two minutes later, however, openside flanker Naulia Dawai produced some magic out wide, dancing through the cover to secure the second try.

Cooney's conversion attempt hit the upright for a 12-0 half time lead before the Italians opening their account with a Palazzani penalty after the restart. However a missed penalty and a knock-on stymied their comeback as Connacht's bench was introduced.

It made an immediate impact. A super break from Kieran Marmion turned the tide in favour of the home side again as he slid within 20 metres of the line, and from a quick tap penalty replacement John Muldoon hit the line to post a third try after 61 minutes. Connacht grabbed the bonus point try in the 65th minute after the returning Andrew Browne secured line-out ball and Connacht drove towards the line before referee Mitreus awarded the penalty try. Lewis Stephenson crowned a solid performance with a 74th minute try, which replacement Craig Ronaldson converted for a comfortable victory in atrocious conditions.

Connacht: T O'Halloran, N Adeolokun, B Aki, T Farrell, S Ili, S Crosbie, J Cooney, R Loughney, T McCartney, D Robertson-McCoy, L Stephenson, A Browne, E McKeon, N Dawai, E Masterson. Replacements, K Marmion for Cooney (HT ), D Buckley for Loughney and F Bealham for Robertson-McCoy (both 63m ), J Muldoon for Masterson (56m ), J Carty for Crosbie (63m ), Q Roux for Browne (68m ), C Ronaldson for O'Halloran and D Heffernan for McCartney (70m ).


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