Connacht return to Guinness Pro 12 action against Zebre at the Sportsground this evening (7.35pm ) with some key players giving province a boost. New Kiwi signings Mils Muliaini and Bundi Aki will both start with Muliani making his debut for the provience and Aki will be taking his home bow. Connacht’s latest recruit from Auckland Blues, Tom McCartney will take his place on the bench from the off. Although signed as a hooker, McCartney is also a prop and he could find himself at some stage helping to anchor the scrum with Connacht's front options once again taking an injury hit.
Muliaina will make his Connacht debut at the Sportsground tomorrow night lining out at full back in a side that sees seven changes since the trip to Ospreys in the last round of PRO12 action. Bundee Aki is one of only two players retained in the back line with Matt Healy kept on the left wing.
Outhalf Miah Nikora has been handed his first start of the season and is partnered by scrum half Ian Porter while Dave McSharry makes up the midfield pairing with Aki. 25-year-old Danie Poolman is recalled to the right wing.
Up front, there are two changes to the pack. Galway man Ronan Loughney switches to tight head prop in the absence of the injured Nathan White and Rodney Ah You who remains with the Ireland squad. Flanker Willie Faloon is named in a back row alongside captain John Muldoon and Player of the Month George Naoupu.
Prop JP Cooney is the latest casualty, having fractured his hand in training, and the former Garryowen man will be out of action for up to five weeks. He joins Nathan White, who had arm surgery two weeks ago and is likely to be sidelined for up to three months, also ruled out this week are lock Ali Muldowney with ongoing concussive symptoms, and wing Niyi Adeolokun who suffered high ankle sprain against the Ospreys.
Commenting on the team selection and the upcoming game, Head Coach Pat Lam said "It's fantastic to have our three new signings Mils, Bundee and Tom available for this game as we had planned. They have all settled in very well, getting to know their team mates and the new systems and structures. All three are really looking forward to getting out on the field tomorrow night in front of our home fans for the first time.
"We know there is a lot of anticipation around Mils' debut. This is Connacht's first All Black about to play at the Sportsground so it's obviously very exciting for us and our supporters. While the expectation is high, we have to keep in mind that this will be his first game of rugby since March after returning from a long term injury. But Mils is a true professional and has shown his experience during rehab, training and off the field. He is gunning to get out there to perform for the team.
On the back of two disappointing performances - losses to Exeter in the Challenge Cup and Ospreys in the Pro 12 - a return to winning ways is essential, particularly if Connacht want to maintain their top six position says Assistant coach Dan McFarland “Although we are not happy with those performances, it is not a question of despair by any stretch of the imagination. We are in sixth place with Zebre and Scarlets at home and it is a positive scenario to be in.”
However, he says, a top six side would want to beat Zebre at home.
“We have beaten them eight times in the last two years, but when you look at those games, Zebre want to play against us. They are quite a good team, and many aspects of their game are dangerous. Generally we have had very tough battles with them.” McFarland says Connacht cannot take Zebre’s challenge lightly. “They are a proud team, desperate to win, with a number of very experienced players. They do not play like a club that has finished bottom for the last two years.”