West need accuracy to awake again


Zebre v Connacht:CONNACHT COACH Eric Elwood will have noted the appointment of referee Leighton Hodges for today’s Heineken Cup match in Parma. The Welshman presided over Leinster’s 30-21 victory over Munster at the Aviva Stadium last weekend and there were a number of striking aspects to his style of officiating.

He’s very strict in penalising a tackler who doesn’t roll away immediately and is also confident enough to consistently penalise any transgression at scrum time. His main bugbear is incorrect binding. Connacht will need to ensure that they are scrupulously accurate in those two aspects of the game.

Zebre extol typical Italian rugby values; they’ll be very physically abrasive at the breakdown; formidable in the scrum. The visitors must finish on the right side of the penalty count if they are to prevail.

This game represents a great opportunity for Connacht to kick-start their European campaign on a positive note because the other away days in the pool in London and Biarritz will be considerably tougher.

The excellent documentary on the Irish province’s first season in the Heineken Cup, screened last Wednesday on TG4, offered a timely reminder on how cruel sport can be and the wafer-thin line between success and failure. Connacht could have won three matches but ended up with just a single, if memorable, victory.

The sides have already met in the league at today’s venue with Connacht winning 30-17. Zebre, a first season franchise, have yet to win a match. They possess a physically strong backline and a pack, that while slightly careworn in a couple of positions, has a surfeit of experience in the shape of Mauro Bergamasco, Quintin Geldenhuys, Josh Sole and Salvatore Perugini.

Elwood has elected to change his front row, introducing Denis Buckley, Ethienne Reynecke and Nathan White. The New Zealand tighthead prop, who arrived from Leinster during the summer, captains the team in the absence of Gavin Duffy.

Connacht will need to be precise and resolute in the set piece to create the right environment for their young, talented backs, who have ostensibly benefited from the chaperoning of Dan Parks. Elwood has spoken warmly about teenage fullback Robbie Henshaw and his capacity to become a Test player; words that will carry a certain resonance for Tiernan O’Halloran and Eoin Griffin, who have previously been singled out.

This afternoon offers a decent benchmarking process as they oppose Italian internationals like Giovanbattista Venditti, Matteo Pratichetti and Gonzalo Garcia. Kieran Marmion showed promise in the Under 20 World Cup and in the continued absence of Paul O’Donohue and Frank Murphy has acquitted himself well in the transition to this level.

If the Irish province is to prevail though it’ll require more earthy qualities, the hardnosed aggression of the pack and leaders like Michael Swift, Mike McCarthy and George Naoupu. Elwood spoke in that documentary, of how soul destroying it was to be patronised in defeat, however well meaning. He challenged his team to master their own destiny and cast away the tag of plucky losers.

They have managed it fitfully, spectacularly so against Leinster, only to follow it up with a pretty insipid outing against Ulster. If they are to honour their coach’s exhortations then this afternoon is a pretty important staging post.

ZEBRE: D Halangahu; G Venditti, M Pratichetti, G Garcia, S Sinoti; L Orquera, T Tebaldi; S Perugini, D Giazzon, L Redolfini; Q Geldenhuys, J Sole; N Belardo, M Bergamasco, D van Schalkwyk. Replacements: C Festuccia, M Aguero, C Fazzari, M Van Vuren, F Ferrarini, L Martinelli, R Trevisan, L Sarto.

CONNACHT: R Henshaw; T O’Halloran, E Griffin, D McSharry, F Vainikolo; D Parks, K Marmion; D Buckley, E Reynecke, N White (capt); M Swift, M McCarthy; J Muldoon, W Faloon, G Naoupu. Replacements: A Flavin, R Ah You, R Loughney, D Gannon, J O’Connor, D Moore, M Nikora, M Fifita.

Referee: Leighton Hodges(Wales).

Verdict: Connacht.

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