Connacht will match their tally of seven wins from last season’s RaboDirect PRO12 if they can maintain their resurgent form at home to Zebre on Friday night.
RABODIRECT PRO12: Friday, March 1
CONNACHT (9th) v ZEBRE (12th), the Sportsground, 7.45pm (live TG4)
Team News: Head coach Eric Elwood has announced the Connacht team to face Zebre in round 17 of the RaboDirect PRO12 on Friday night.
Connacht welcome the Italian side to the Sportsground (kick-off 7.45pm) and there are three personnel changes to the team that beat the Cardiff Blues last weekend.
Robbie Henshaw, who was on international duty last week, is named at full-back for his 21st senior appearance for the province.
The 27-year-old Brian Murphy, who made his Connacht debut in Cardiff, will start again at inside centre in a midfield partnership with fellow Galway native Eoin Griffin.
Skipper Gavin Duffy is named on the left wing, replacing Fetu’u Vainikolo who drops to the replacements bench.
Dan Parks was a late withdrawal for the Cardiff game with a hamstring injury. He will return to out-half duties, taking over from the benched Miah Nikora.
Meanwhile, there is just one change up front with Michael Kearney replacing Michael Swift in the second row.
Swift sustained a knee injury during training earlier in the week. Connacht’s most-capped player is waiting on scan results to determine the severity of the injury.
A recent returnee from injury, George Naoupu, is listed on the bench along with front rowers Adrian Flavin, Ronan Loughney and Denis Buckley.
Meanwhile, there have been several changes made to the Connacht team after last Sunday’s agonising 14-13 defeat to fellow strugglers.
They had been 13-3 in front with 50 minutes gone following a Matteo Pratichetti try and eight points from the boot of Alberto Chillon.
The pair will start once again in Galway with the main alterations in the back-line seeing Italian internationals Gonzalo Garcia and Paolo Buso both return.
Pratichetti moves to outside centre with Garcia recalled to the inside berth and Samuele Pace dropping out of the starting line-up. Buso is a straight swap for Alberto Chiesa.
There is a new front row composed of Andrea de Marchi, hooker Andrea Manici and former Munster forward David Ryan.
With Michael van Vuuren ruled out through inury, Josh Sole steps in at second row with the returing Mauro Bergamasco returning at openside flanker.
CONNACHT: Robbie Henshaw; Danie Poolman, Eoin Griffin, Brian Murphy, Gavin Duffy (capt); Dan Parks, Kieran Marmion; Brett Wilkinson, Jason Harris-Wright, Nathan White, Michael Kearney, Andrew Browne, John Muldoon, Willie Faloon, Eoin McKeon.
Replacements: Adrian Flavin, Denis Buckley, Ronan Loughney, Thomas Anderson, George Naoupu, Paul O’Donohoe, Miah Nikora, Fetu’u Vainikolo.
ZEBRE: Alberto Benettin; Leonardo Sarto, Matteo Pratichetti, Gonzalo Garcia, Sinoti Sinoti; Paolo Buso, Alberto Chillon; Andrea de Marchi, Andrea Manici, David Ryan, Josh Sole, Marco Bortolami, Filippo Ferrarini, Mauro Bergamasco, Andries van Schalkwyk.
Replacements: Carlo Festuccia, Matias Aguero, Luciano Leibson, Emiliano Caffini, Nicola Belardo, Guglielmo Palazzani, Alberto Chiesa, Samuele Pace.
Referee: Neil Hennessy (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Michael Black, Ed Kenny (both Ireland)
Television Match Official: Kevin Beggs (Ireland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Connacht to win: 1/14; Draw: 30/1; Zebre to win: 7/1
Pre-Match Quotes: Eric Elwood (Connacht) – “We are under no illusions. They put us to the pin of the collar last time, so nothing will be easy,” he told the Galway Advertiser.
“Zebrewill be disappointed they lost narrowly to the Dragons last weekend and they came close to beating us here in Galway, so they will see this as a big opportunity.
“We are in a good space and we go into the game with confidence. We had a big improvement in our discipline and it has paid dividends, so once we control what we can do and control the breakdown, we are capable of scoring tries.
“We know what it takes to win a match and we are absolutely not taking anything for granted.”
Top Scorers – 2012/13 RaboDirect PRO12: Connacht – Points: Dan Parks 87; Tries: Danie Poolman 5; Zebre – Points: Daniel Halangahu 53; Tries: Tito Tebaldi, Andries van Schalkwyk 4 each
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
Friday, September 7, 2012 – Zebre 17 Connacht 30, Stadio di Monigo
– Connacht have won three of their last four games in the RaboDirect PRO12, while they have been victorious in their last three fixtures at the Sportsground in all competitions
– Connacht have won their last five matches against Italian opponents in all competitions
– Zebre recorded their second loss by the narrowest of margins in being defeated 14-13 by the Newport Gwent Dragons in Parma last Sunday: it was the fifth occasion in the PRO12 that Zebre have been leading inside the final quarter of a game only to eventually lose the match
– These two sides have met on three occasions this season – once in the RaboDirect PRO12 and twice in the Heineken Cup pool stages – with Connacht victorious every time
– Zebre lost 25-20 on their only previous visit to the Sportsground on January 18