Reigning Guinness PRO12 champions Connacht welcome Zebre to the Sportsground in a rich vein of form, looking to make it four wins on the bounce and maintain their top-six chances.
What’s at stake?
Zebre led Connacht 22-10 when their Round 3 Guinness PRO12 fixture at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi was called off due to torrential rain and since then, the Italians have just one away win – against Edinburgh at BT Murrayfield.
Connacht’s slow start to the season has been shaken off and despite narrowly missing out on a Champions Cup quarter-final spot by falling to a 19-10 defeat in Toulouse, they have lost just once in their last nine encounters at the Sportsground.
A win for Zebre could lift them above Benetton Treviso in the intensifying battle for a Champions Cup spot, as well as closing in on Newport Gwent Dragons.
Connacht meanwhile are on their best run of form since lifting the Guinness PRO12 crown and will want to maintain that momentum at all costs.
Team news (Connacht): Bundee Aki starts again for Connacht, while No. 8 Eoghan Masterson returns after 12 months out of the professional game with a serious knee injury.
The 23-year-old has some time with Galwegians in the All-Ireland League and Connacht Eagles and starts at No. 8, with John Cooney at scrum-half.
Stacey Ili and Niyi Adeolokun form a potent wing partnership, while Ireland Test players, Finlay Bealham, Quinn Roux, Kieran Marmion and Tiernan O’Halloran are among the replacements.
Team news (Zebre): Highly-rated No. 8 Federico Ruzza starts opposite Masterson and 67-cap Italy lock Quintin Geldenhuys starts in the second row alongside Valerio Bernabo, who skippers the side.
Test prop Dario Chistolini starts at tighthead, Italian international Josh Furno is among the replacements alongside Mario Pratichetti.
Talking points: Having been paired alongside each other in the Champions Cup, Connacht and Zebre know each other better than most.
Pat Lam has chosen to rotate his side and allow some rest to the likes of O’Halloran and John Muldoon, something he feels is necessary with potentially season-defining fixtures against Munster, Scarlets and Leinster on the horizon.
“This will be a great opportunity for others in the squad to show what they can do,” Lam explained.
“The team are buzzing for them and we’re really looking forward to being back at the Sportsground.
“Having faced Zebre three times already this season, we know that we can expect a tough, physical challenge. It’s vital that we give them the respect they deserve through our preparation and execution of our own game plan.”
Key battle: With Marmion on the bench, Cooney pulls on the No. 9 shirt with a point to prove.
He has made just four Guinness PRO12 starts this season and with Caolin Blade and Marmion jostling for position, Cooney will want to lay down a marker.
What’s more, with debutant Steve Crosbie starting at outside-half, he will need to take charge against a motivated Zebre.
Guglielmo Palazzani single-handedly pulled Zebre back from 14-0 down against Ulster in Round 16 in a shining exhibition of his ability to change games.
Though they fell away against a powerful Ulster side, Palazzani will have a huge say in how Zebre tackle this much-changed Connacht unit.
Key stat: Connacht’s only loss in their last nine matches at the Sportsground in all tournaments was to Munster in the Guinness PRO12 on 31 December.
Did you know? The Italians’ only previous victory over an Irish province was when they beat Ulster in Parma in September 2014, while the only Italian side to have beaten Connacht in Galway was Treviso in December 2011.
Top points scorer: 70 – Jack Carty
Top try scorer: 4 – Niyi Adeolokun
Top points scorer: 66 – Carlo Canna
Top try scorer: 4 – Dries van Schalkwyk, Giovanbattista Venditti
Overall Guinness PRO12 head to head record:
Played 8, Connacht won 8.
At Sportsground, 7.35pm Live on TG4
Referee: Marius Mitrea (FIR, 64th competition game)
Assistant Referees: Rhys Thomas (WRU), Ken Imbusch (IRFU)
Citing Commissioner: John Cole (IRFU)
TMO: Jon Mason (WRU)
Guinness PRO12 Final 2017, 27th May, Aviva Stadium, Dublin. Ticket Information: Fans can still avail of an exclusive number of €35 tickets. Book via www.ticketmaster.ie. Further information: www.pro12rugby.com/final
A 65th-minute penalty try handed Connacht their fourth consecutive Guinness PRO12 win as they leapfrogged Cardiff Blues into seventh with a 33-3 win over Zebre at the Sportsground.
Pat Lam’s side are on their longest unbeaten streak of the season and are now within two points of Glasgow Warriors and the top six.
Naulia Dawai and Niyi Adeolokun had given Connacht a healthy 12-0 advantage at the break, but when Guglielmo Palazzani struck an early second-half penalty, Zebre hinted at a comeback.
Instead a sublime break from Kieran Marmion led to a try for John Muldoon before a penalty try for collapsing a maul took Connacht 26-3 in front and then Lewis Stevenson grabbed try number five.
The reigning Guinness PRO12 Champions had lost just once at the Sportsground in their last nine matches and they started with the swagger of a side in fine form.
In atrocious weather, Adeolokun collected a fine wide pass from debutant Steve Crosbie to cross after seven minutes, with Cooney knocking over the conversion for a 7-0 lead.
With Connacht pushing for a second, they twice spilled the ball in the slippery conditions before a breakthrough nearly came through Eoin McKeon, only to be pulled back for obstruction.
But Fijian openside Dawai finished well out wide, stepping and fending the cover-tackler to dive over the whitewash before Cooney’s conversion bounced out off the post.
Zebre responded admirably, working their way into the Connacht 22-metre line and coming close with a well-set driving maul, but when the ball was moved wide a chip went astray and with it a hard-earned penalty advantage.
That returned the initiative to Connacht and twice they kicked to the corner in search of a third try t0 no avail, leaving the champions 12-0 ahead at the break.
Marmion replaced Cooney at half-time, but it was Zebre’s influential No. 9 Palazzani who got the second half’s first points, slotting a penalty on 44 minutes to close the gap.
But Connacht’s Ireland No 9 made a mark of his own with an hour gone, dummying superbly to break into the Zebre 22 from inside his half.
When Zebre strayed offside a minute later, Muldoon – on as a replacement for long-term injury absentee Eoghan Masterson – capitalised on a smartly-taken tap penalty underneath the Zebre posts to barrel over.
Tiernan O’Halloran added the extras and as the pressure upon Zebre started to mount, they handed Connacht the bonus point with a collapsed maul before Craig Ronaldson put Stevenson over after some quick-thinking from a penalty.
Guinness PRO12 Final 2017, 27th May, Aviva Stadium, Dublin.
Ticket Information: Fans can still avail of an exclusive number of €35 tickets. Book via www.ticketmaster.ie. Further information: www.pro12rugby.com/final