Connacht complete their second Heineken Cup campaign this evening (8pm ) at the Galway Sportsground intent on keeping their unbeaten record against Zebre intact, and finishing the pool on a high.
In their two fixtures against the Italians to date - in both the cup and the RaboDirect Pro 12 - Connacht have come away with wins. They enjoyed a comfortable 30-17 victory in the league early in the season, but the opening cup fixture win in October was considerably closer at 19-10. As a result Connacht cannot afford to take anything for granted if they want to grab a third win in this season’s Heineken Cup.
Failure to manage a bonus point in last weekend’s 47-8 loss to Harlequins made it mathematically impossible to catch Biarritz, who will finish runners-up in pool three. Barring a Harlequins’ disaster in the Basque Country tomorrow night, it is likely Biarritz will head into the Amlin Cup, which they won last season.
For Connacht, it is all about pride and a third success in the cup campaign - possibly their last for at least a season unless the other provinces win either the Heineken or the Amlin. And a fourth victory, following their win over Harlequins last season, would be a good result for the province, considering teams like the Ospreys, Northampton, Castre, London Irish, Racing Metro, Bath, Montpellier and Benetton Treviso enjoyed less success last year.
Eric Elwood has made three personal changes to the starting side from last weekends game. Out-half Dan Parks who missed the game through injury returns to the number ten shirt alongside Kieran Marmion in the half-back pairing. Brett Wilkinson will come in for Denis Buckley at loosehead prop and in a reshuffle in the backrow line Mick Kearney will come in at blindside flanker and Andrew Browne will move to number eight with Eoin McKeon failing to shake off an injury picked up last weekend.
In other changes in the back line Robbie Henshaw who was called up to the extended Ireland squad yesterday will start at full back, with Dave McSharry who also got a national call up start in the number 13 jersey. Tiernan O’Halloran who will be making his 50th cap for the province will be in the number 14 shirt with Fetu’u Viniklolo on the other wing.
“It is a huge game for the club. We want to give everyone a chance so we have the best possible squad from which to choose,” says Elwood. “We are under pressure, but we have always bounced back. We are not happy with the manner of the defeat against Harlequins - that was the biggest since I have been in charge - and yes, we were up against a quality team, but still some of those scores we could have prevented.
“Now we have an opportunity here playing against a team we have already beaten twice, so it’s a chance to finish the campaign on a high and I would be very proud if we could win that - three from six is a good return for us.”
Elwood said there was no possibility Connacht will take the visitors lightly.
“I think we have no right to take anyone for granted. Every game we go into, we know we must have respect for who we are playing and work extermely hard for any of our victories.
“We need a workmanlike performance and that’s how we have always won our games. We don’t win games by seven or eight playing well. We win games by everyone chipping in and putting their shoulders to the wheel and tomorrow’s match is no exception. Nothing will be easy, it will be hard fought.”
However Connacht’s best last weekend was too inexperienced for Quins, who had also racked up a similar score of 41-13 to Biarritz in their opening pool fixture. “We were confident in the ability of the squad, which we showed in the first 30 minutes,” said Elwood. “ Losing Parks, Naoupu and Poolman - they are three big players - and we cannot afford to lose quality players like that, but we had enough opportunities in that first half. We had four of five line breaks and didn't score, so to start the game so brightly, but to get no reward for it and go in at half time 16 - 3 down, that is disappointing.”