THIS AFTERNOON, CONNACHT welcome Zebre to the Sportsground on one of those all too rare occasions when the visitors can happily pick up the underdog tag on the way from the changing rooms to the field.
Pat Lam’s men go into the game with nine points already accumulated in Heineken Cup Pool 3 and since the sweat turned cold on Saturday night the coach has been reminding the public that his side still have tangible rewards to play for in Europe.
A bonus point win for the hosts would put them within one point of Saracens who must travel to Toulouse before Connacht visit Allianz Park next weekend.
Hampering their chances will be the absence of New Zealander Craig Clarke; the lock will miss today’s clash with a neck injury. As one Kiwi moves out, however, another moves in in the shape of Jake Heenan and the openside’s effectiveness will be crucial to whether or not Connacht can take all five points.
The weight of betting behind Connacht will come despite the relative unknown quantities of Jack Carty and Darragh Leader, who will once again divide kicking duties between short and long respectively. That duo take the focus of Lam’s all-Irish back-line; a department of the team that promises plenty of attacking ambition and suddenly counts Robbie Henshaw and Kieran Marmion as senior members.
Carty, in particular, was impressive on his full debut for the province against Leinster last weekend. The 21-year-old showed the confidence and skill to aggressively go at the much-vaunted eastern province and a repeat performance today promises a greater return.
Zebre fared better than Connacht over the winter derby period, beating Treviso to claim their first ever home win last weekend. That win moved Zebre above today’s opponents in the league, but whether it has sated their hunger for victory or merely whetted their appetite remains to be seen.
Connacht: D Leader, F Carr, R Henshaw, E Griffin, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion: B Wilkinson, S Henry, N White, M Kearney, A Browne; J Muldoon (capt) J Heenan, E McKeon.
Replacements: J Harris-Wright, D Buckley, R Ah You, M Swift, G Naoupu, P O’Donohoe, D Parks, G Duffy.
Zebre: G Palazzani, G Toniolatti , K Ratuvou, G Garcia, D Berryman, L Orquera, A Chillon: M Aguero, D Giazzon, D Chistolini, Q Geldenhuys (capt), G Biagi, F Ferrarini, D van Schalkwyk, S Vunisa,
Replacements: T D’Apice, A de Marchi, D Ryan, M Bortolami, N Cattina, R Quartaroli, R Trevisan, D Odiete.