Keane starts to crack the whip as Connacht head to Italy

Kieran Keane returns to Italy for the first time in 38 years when he takes his Connacht squad to Parma for Saturday's PRO 14 joust with Michael Bradley's Zebre.

It is something of a nostalgic return for Keane who was a member of the 1979 All Blacks side that played a first international match against Italy in Rovigo at the end of a tour to England and Scotland.

The Connacht coach played inside centre on that occasion, alongside other notables such as Graham Mourie, Andy Haden, Murray Mexted, Mark Donaldson, Stu Wilson and Bernie Fraser.

The New Zealanders eked out a hard-fought 18-12 win, but it was tinged with sadness when they heard afterwards that an Air New Zealand passenger plane had crashed in the Antarctic, in what became known as the Mt Erebus Disaster, the worst civil disaster in New Zealand's history.

"I have good memories, except it is the anniversary of Erebus. When we came off the field and got that news, and we didn't know if any of the lads had family members or close friends involved. It is certainly indented here [in my head], " said Keane on Tuesday which was the 38th anniversary - and also the 124th of NZ women becoming the first in the world to vote.

Connacht is light in the back row with both Eoin McKeon (hamstring ) and Jake Heenan (shoulder ) joining Jarrad Butler and Sean O'Brien on the injury list, but James Connolly (ankle ) is back training, and Keane says Academy and former Ireland U20 captain lock/backrow Cillian Gallagher could also be added to the squad if needed. Internationals Ultan Dillane and Kieran Marmion are available, with centre Bundee Aki given further rest, while it is a little too early for centre Peter Robb who returned to training this week from hip surgery. The experienced Tom McCartney could also come back into the reckoning for what could be a difficult assignment against a Zebre side with its internationals also available.

"Zebre certainly give the ball plenty of air and they have good players," said Keane, "so I think we will be pretty evenly matched. We expect a tussle. To be a lot more disciplined in our approach, understand what our roles are, and execute really well, is where we want to concentrate. We don't want to get swept up in peripheral things."

Keane says now is time to "ramp" it up.

"Now the whips are starting to crack. We need to gather points if we want to stay in the competition, so those two points [against Cardiff] were massive for us and we deserved them."

That 36-30 point defeat was frustrating, and although Connacht can point to 11 execution errors in the first 20 minutes, there were also some poor calls from the referee.

"We got two points for our endeavour so we didn't come away with nothing, so on reflection once the emotion had died down, it was better than nothing," Keane said.

"There were things out of our control to be fair, and I had a good chat with Greg Garner [PRO 14 elite referee manager] about a few things. There is no point in venting, the chap was a young referee, the trio operating were pretty inexperienced, necessitated by a lot of internationals being on, and young men have to find their feet, so no grievances from us, but on the day it does cause a bit of frustration.

"There was a turning point in the game and it turned against us, but we will take it on the chin."

It resulted in Cardiff leapfrogging Connacht on the table last evening, and taking a one-point advantage in the qualification position. Although Connacht scored more tries, four to Cardiff's three, the homeside edged the contest by virtue of a flawless kicking performance from outhalf Jarrod Evans and replacement Gareth Anscombe, kicking 21 of their 36 points.

Connacht, forced to make a late change with Eoghan Masterson replacing the injured Eoin McKeon, opened with a Jack Carty penalty on 13 minutes but Cardiff replied almost immediately through outhalf Jarrod Evans. Four minutes later openside Ollie Robinson touched down after some slick handling down the left wing for the opening try, Evans adding the conversion for a 10-3 lead. It did not get any better for Connacht when the first-time competition referee again pinged Connacht at the breakdown, Evans extending the lead to 13 - 3.

Connacht, however, crossed the whitewash thanks to a Niyi Adeookun intercept try, and Carty conversion before both outhalves exchanged penalties for a 16-13 half time score.

Connacht's superiority in the scrum kept the home side on the back foot in the second half, but despite three reset scrums and a penalty, Cardiff were given the decision on the third, letting them off the hook, and when Eoin Griffin was yellow carded - his attempted intercept deemed a deliberate knock-on - it was the second big decision that went against Connacht.

Cardiff took immediate advantage of the extra man, fullback Matthew Morgan finding the gap to touch down before Connacht replied through replacement hooker Shane Delahunt from a line-out and maul. After Owen Lane wriggled out of a tackle for a third try thanks to the influential Anscombe, the home side led 30-18.

Connacht staged another comeback, only to be denied by the ref. It resulted in a yellow card for Nick Williams for an ensuing off the ball incident, and from the penalty Conancht drove again, Delahunt again touching down to reduce the deficit to seven. In more drama, Quinn Roux was carded for a high tackle, providing Cardiff with another penalty, but Connacht refused to give up. Replacement Pita Ahjki made a statement on his debut, setting up John Muldoon for the fourth try, which Steve Crosbie converted. There was time for one last play, and Anscombe finished with a 40m penalty, ensuring Cardiff recorded the double over Connacht this season.

Connacht: T O’Halloran, N Adeolokun, E Griffin, T Farrell, M Healy, JCarty, C Blade, D Buckley, D Heffernan, F Bealham, Q Roux, J Cannon, EMasterson, J Heenan, J Muldoon (capt ). Replacements, S Delahunt for Heenan (48m ), P Ahki for Griffin (59m ), SCrosbie for Carty and J Mitchell for Blade (65m ), C Carey for Bealham(68m ), C Kelleher for Farrell (76m ).


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