Connacht Rugby head to Italy under pressure to gain a victory over RaboDirect Pro 12 newcomers Zebre this evening. After a disappointing 13- 9 opening day defeat to Cardiff Blues on Saturday at the Galway Sportsground, coach Eric Elwood admits Connacht have made it hard for themselves.
“We obviously let ourselves down and have made it hard for ourselves,” he says. “The fact that we didn’t win a home game that we expected to has put us under pressure.” Now Connacht face a new Italian franchise hosting their first Pro 12 fixture at home, and having lost their opener to the Dragons by 35 - 6, they too will want to make a statement in front of a new home crowd.
“It’s going to be challenging. In soccer parlance, it’s the proverbial six-pointer. We lost and they lost and now we are their first visitors.”
Elwood was surprised with the magnitude of Zebre’s opening loss and says it does not reflect their ability, particularly in attack. “I have watched their pre-season games against Northampton and Perpignan - two quality sides. In attack they were magnificent. Their offloads, ball skills, and continuity was very impressive, so we are in for a stiff challenge. Certainly Zebre will ask questions of our defence.”
Like the Dragons, Connacht will need to find the key to unlocking the Zebre defence, while also upping their ability to maintain possession, both in the set piece and at the breakdown.
Elwood still has injury concerns and is unlikely to make any changes to his starting XV. However it is hoped some players might be fit enough to make the bench, including scrumhalf Frank Murphy and prop Nathan White.
Zebre technical director Christian Gajan has made four changes with 21-year-old centre Alberto Benettin making his debut for injured team-mate Roberto Quartaroli, while emerging Italian scrumhalf Alberto Chillon wins his first start in place of Tito Tebaldi.
Veteran Italian flanker Mauro Bergamasco makes his first start for Zebre replacing Nicola Cattina, while former Italian international Josh Sole starts as lock.
Unlike the poor weather conditions last week, Connacht can expect a return to dry and warm conditions, which Elwood believes will be “more conducive to play more quality rugby and maintaining possession”.
“Our scrum was good and we showed good dominance, but we are going to have to make that dominance pay. However, we will need to improve our line-out, and have more control there as a launch pad for our backs. With the dry ball we should see more from our backs in attack, and also improve our kick chase game.”
Last weekend Connacht failed to capitalise on an abundance of possession, and a losing bonus point was no consolation as the Cardiff Blues, missing their internationals, opened their season under new coach Phil Davies with the victory.
”It was a missed opportunity for sure. I would have thought that what was at stake, with the ball we had and the opportunities we had, we should have made it pay and got the four points.
"When you look at the amount of possession we had in both halves - and in the first half we had something like 11 turnovers - and that was into the wind, but we just were not able to hold onto the ball in key areas."