Head coach Pat Lam has made one change to his team from the last round of the GUINNESS PRO12 as his Connacht side prepare to face Zebre in Parma on Saturday (kick-off 6.30pm local time/5.30pm Irish time).
Scrum half John Cooney is named to start in an otherwise unchanged back-line in what will be his 13th appearance of the season.
Academy out-half Conor McKeon (pictured below) represents one of two changes to the replacements bench. The 21-year-old is in line to earn his first cap for the province in Italy. A cousin of number 8 Eoin McKeon, the former Ireland Under-20 international and current Lansdowne out-half joined the Connacht Academy last summer.
Prop JP Cooney (24) has also been included in Saturday’s matchday squad, replacing the injured Ronan Loughney (groin).
Connacht currently sit in eighth place in the PRO12 after dropping out of the all-important sixth place following the loss to league leaders Glasgow Warriors last month.
However, Pat Lam’s men are still in with a chance of qualifying for next season’s European Champions Cup. A win over Zebre would mark a season record of ten league victories and would also be their tenth consecutive triumph over the Italian side.
Zebre are still chasing the Italian European Champions Cup spot for next season as they sit just three points behind arch rivals Benetton Treviso.
Commenting on the team selection for the trip to Parma, Lam said: “After a series of good performances from the bench, it’s great to be able to give John (Cooney) a start this weekend.
“At this late stage of the season, it’s not unusual for us to be light in terms of players available. We’ve always had to rely on our Academy players to step up when needed and with an eye to the future, young Conor (McKeon) will get a well-deserved chance to do that this weekend.
“Conor is a talented out-half who has done very well in his first year in the Academy. He has trained with the senior squad for the last four weeks and to gain experience on and off the field in a massively important PRO12 game is the next step in his development.”
The Connacht boss added: “We all know how crucial this game against Zebre is. It’s ‘must win’ territory if we want to keep our hopes of Champions Cup qualification alive.
“While we have a good record against Zebre, we know too well not to underestimate them. They have been consistently improving as a side over the last three seasons and they are a different prospect at home. They have their own European battle ongoing with Treviso and a lot to play for in these last two rounds.
“While our run-in is tight, all we can control is our own performance and we must ensure the win in Italy before we welcome the Ospreys to the Sportsground next weekend. We are determined to finish the season on a high – for us and for our supporters.”
CONNACHT (v Zebre): Tiernan O’Halloran; Danie Poolman, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Matt Healy; Jack Carty, John Cooney; Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney, Rodney Ah You, Ultan Dillane, Aly Muldowney, John Muldoon (capt), Eoghan Masterson, Eoin McKeon.
Replacements: Dave Heffernan, JP Cooney, Finlay Bealham, Andrew Browne, George Naoupu, Kieran Marmion, Conor McKeon, Darragh Leader.