Finlay Bealham to make 200th Connacht appearance in must-win clash with Zebre

Home fixture with the struggling Italian side must lead to vital league table points as Connacht battle for a top-eight finish

United Rugby Championship: Connacht v Zebre, Dexcom Stadium (7.35, live on TG4, Premier Sports).

Nothing other than a bonus point victory will suffice if Connacht wish to genuinely pursue a top eight place in the URC table this season and the tangible benefits that will accrue both domestically and in Europe.

Performances as much as results have been a bugbear in terms of yo-yo quality, ones that broach the excellent and the substandard occasionally in the space of a week.

Pete Wilkins has some excellent young players at his disposal as Cathal Forde, Shane Jennings, Sean O’Brien and more recently Matthew Devine have demonstrated. Jennings starts at fullback, Devine at scrumhalf. How Oran McNulty has played the majority of the season with Garryowen and not Connacht is a mystery if talent is the primary arbiter.

Tonight’s game represents a landmark occasion for the popular Finlay Bealham who will make his 200th appearance for the club and in doing so becomes the seventh player to reach the milestone for the club, joining team-mates Denis Buckley, Tiernan O’Halloran and Jack Carty, and former players John Muldoon, Michael Swift and Kieran Marmion.


Hooker Dave Heffernan captains the side while Jordan Duggan lines out as loosehead. Locks Niall Murray and Joe Joyce are paired together, while a reshuffled back row sees Shamus Hurley-Langton move to blindside flanker, Conor Oliver coming in at openside and Sean O’Brien starting at number eight.

JJ Hanrahan continues at outhalf, Tom Farrell comes in to partner Bundee Aki in the centre, while John Porch is back in the team and on the right wing. Wilkins has elected for a six-two split on the bench. Zebre are a more dangerous team than one win and a draw in 13 matches suggests, racking up nine bonus points.

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Fabio Roselli head coach of the visitors said: “Connacht is a team that wants to play all-out rugby at home and is capable of great acceleration with world-class players. We absolutely have to react to the last bad performance; we have an important mission for the end of the season and this mission starts from [the] Connacht [game].

“We have to find the courage to challenge them on counterattacks and turnovers and regain that confidence to play our rugby, with our identity that makes us competitive against everyone and that excites us so much.”

Connacht need to be sharp in their focus and accurate in their work and if they can manage to fulfil those two criteria then it should be a good evening for the home side in Galway.

Connacht: S Jennings; J Porch, T Farrell, B Aki, A Smith; JJ Hanrahan, M Devine; J Duggan, D Heffernan (capt), F Bealham; J Joyce, N Murray; S Hurley-Langton, C Oliver, S O’Brien.

Replacements: T McElroy, P Dooley, S Illo, O Dowling, J Butler, C Blade, C Forde, P Boyle.

Zebre: L Pani; J Trulla, S Gregory, F Paea, S Gesi; G Prisciantelli, G Garcia; M Hasa, G Ribaldi, J Pitinari; L Krumov, A Zambonin; G Volpi, D Ruggeri, G Licata (capt).

Replacements: T Di Bartolomeo, D Fischetti, R Genovese, M Canali, I Bianchi, T Dominguez, F Smith Jr, E Lucchin.

Referee: A Barrett-Theron (South Africa)

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer