Back to GUINNESS PRO14 this weekend, Connacht head coach Andy Friend has made 11 personnel changes and one positional switch to the team that went down 20-10 to Sale Sharks in last Friday’s European Challenge Cup quarter-final.
Friend’s charges travel to Parma for a vital PRO14 match on Saturday (kick-off 6.30pm local time/5.30pm Irish time), the result of which will have a huge bearing on their hopes of reaching the knockout stages of the Championship and ultimately qualifying for next season’s Heineken Champions Cup.
Among those recalled is captain Jarrad Butler at number 8, who comes into an all-new back row alongside Eoin McKeon and Colby Fainga’a at blindside and openside respectively. Dominic Robertson-McCoy and Gavin Thornbury are retained in the tight five which is completed by Denis Buckley and Ireland internationals Dave Heffernan and Ultan Dillane.
Jack Carty, who is nominated for three Connacht Rugby awards, has shaken off a bicep injury to start alongside fellow Fans’ Player of the Year nominee Caolin Blade at half-back. Peter Robb will make his third start of the season alongside Tom Farrell, another man in the running for the Fans’ Player of the Year award.
Darragh Leader reverts to the right wing as the experienced Tiernan O’Halloran returns at full-back, along with left winger Matt Healy who memorably scored a hat-trick of tries in Connacht’s 51-34 victory away to Zebre in February 2016. However, they have lost on their last two visits to Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi – 25-22 and 24-10.
Speaking ahead of the round 19 fixture, Friend said: “We have picked a strong side and one that is capable of going to Zebre and winning the game. We’re fully aware of the dangers that Zebre can present, particularly at home. There are a number of our boys who were not involved in Europe last weekend, so they’re coming back in fresh after that break and that brings more energy to the group.
“We said all along that we want to be in the knockout stages of the PRO14 and with three games to go, our destiny is still in our own hands (sitting in third place in Conference A). If we keep winning we will be in that play-off spot so that is our sole focus away to Zebre on Saturday.”
CONNACHT (v Zebre): Tiernan O’Halloran; Darragh Leader, Tom Farrell, Peter Robb, Matt Healy; Jack Carty, Caolin Blade; Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Ultan Dillane, Gavin Thornbury, Eoin McKeon, Colby Fainga’a, Jarrad Butler (capt).
Replacements: Shane Delahunt, Peter McCabe, Conan O’Donnell, Joe Maksymiw, Robin Copeland, Kieran Marmion, Tom Daly, Cian Kelleher.