All Black centurion Mils Muliaina will make his Connacht debut at the Sportsground on Friday, lining out at full-back in a side that sees seven changes since the trip to the Ospreys in the last round of GUINNESS PRO12 action.
Centre Bundee Aki will make his home debut and is one of only two players retained in the back-line with Matt Healy selected again on the left wing.
Out-half 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 centre pairing with Aki. The 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 tighthead 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 the back row alongside captain John Muldoon and the province’s Player of the Month George Naoupu.
McCartney can play at hooker or loosehead prop and the current unavailability of five front row players highlights the value of the 29-year-old’s versatility.
On-loan scrum half John Cooney is also included on the bench for his first home game, while Ireland squad member Darragh Leader has been released from camp to play a part in the PRO12 clash.
Commenting on the team selection and the visit of the Italians, Connacht 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.
“Miah gets his first start this season at out-half after working extremely hard to come back from injury and has impressed us in training. It is a much-changed back-line from last time but one that we’re excited about. It’s great to have that extra depth in the squad to be able to make those changes.
“This week is huge for us. Games with Zebre have always been particularly tight as they are a proud team with a number of very experienced players. We are fully aware that we cannot afford to take our foot off the pedal at any time tomorrow night.
“We haven’t had a game at home in nearly five weeks so there’s a great buzz about the place and we’re so looking forward to playing in front of a packed out Sportsground. We have three back-to-back home games coming up and protecting our unbeaten home record is very important to us.”
Connacht v Zebre tickets are selling fast but there are some remaining for the Main, Enclosed and new Seated Stand.
Starting at just €;20 for adults, tickets are available from tickets.ie, Centra & SuperValu stores province-wide or from the Connacht Rugby office at the Sportsground.
CONNACHT (v Zebre): Mils Muliaina; Danie Poolman, Bundee Aki, Dave McSharry, Matt Healy; Miah Nikora, Ian Porter; Denis Buckley, Jason Harris-Wright, Ronan Loughney, Michael Kearney, Quinn Roux, John Muldoon (capt), Willie Faloon, George Naoupu.
Replacements: Dave Heffernan, Tom McCartney, Finlay Bealham, Andrew Browne, Eoin McKeon, John Cooney, Jack Carty, Darragh Leader.