Connacht head to Italy with both confidence and caution to face a Zebre side desperate for their first Heineken Cup win.
The Italians, who claimed their first Pro 12 against Munster this season, are now targeting Connacht to achieve that elusive Heineken Cup victory when they meet in Stadio XXV Aprile on Saturday (1.35pm ).
The two sides have met on numerous occasions in both Pro 12 and European matches with Connacht boasting a 100 per cent record, but in recent times the games have been too close for comfort. As a result Pat Lam’s charges will not be taking this must-win game lightly.
Once again Connacht have been hit with injuries - most notably to flanker John Muldoon who is expected to be out with a serious calf tear for six weeks. And with Eoin McKeon and Willie Faloon already on the injury list, resources in the back row are stretched. Andrew Browne is the likely replacement for Muldoon, while in the backs it is expected James So’oialo will make his first start alongside Robbie Henshaw in the centre, having missed two days training last week due to work permit difficulties. Matt Healy, Ronan Loughney and Dave McSharry also come into the mix with Loughney a possible starter in the front row if Lam decides to rest Rodney Ah You after his exploits against the Saracens’ front row. Lam made special mention of Ah You, describing his scrummaging last weekend as “immense”.
"He has taken criticism over the seasons, but to go up against a British Lion, then take a knock to the head, and come back at half time, he was massive and answered a lot of people on what he can do."
Having produced a performance that nearly toppled the English championship pacesetters, Lam says Connacht must continue their momentum.
“The boys were up for it [last weekend] and we need to bring it every week. That is what we strive for. Whatever game you are playing, you need to channel emotions and intensity into the game plan, and we did a lot of work on Saracens where we felt we could exploit them, and almost pulled it off. Now we play Zebre and they represent a different challenge.
“My expectation is that the guys will rock in, they only have to bring it once a week. Across the board we had more collectively bringing it last week. For whatever reasons people are motivated differently, but emotions will only win certain games. Zebre - like any team - there is a weakness to exploit, but we cannot do it as an individual, but as a team.
“Saracens are determined to finally get a cup win. We know it is a massive game - it’s their ground - but there are ways to deal with it. If we go out as 15 individuals, we get smoked; If we go as one unit, and clear on what we can do to nullify them, we have a chance.”
Connacht’s performance last weekend has been a huge fillip. According to the statistics Connacht was one of two clubs to maintain a 100 per cent success rate in both the line-out and scrum - Clermont was the other one - while hooker Sean Henry was alone in his 100 per cent success at the line-out.
Connacht prop Brett Wilkinson says the pack was pleased with the scrum, but is still striving to improve. “It was definitely a strength of theirs [Saracens] and we equipped ourselves well, but we are striving for more as a pack. Zebre is going to be a tough challenge. They are big strong men, it’s never an easy game over there, so we are going to be on our mettle. They are going to target this game and take us on up front so we have to be ready for it.”
One aspect of last weekend’s game which frustrated Lam was the refereeing inconsistencies, and this weekend the match official will be Welshman Ian Davies. "There were big calls at crucial times,” says Lam, “and when you get a game that close, there was no doubt that some of the calls were right, but it's just consistency.
"To get a penalty against us for holding on and, in that last play of the game going for a win, if you take a look at the video and have a look at how many guys are off side, in from the side - all the things we were penalised for. That's what I struggle with, it really hurts me because I feel for our team. Those guys have given everything and they deserve better."