Preview: Connacht v Zebre

Date published: January 13 2017

Connacht head coach Pat Lam has named his matchday 23 to face Zebre in Round 5 of the Champions Cup.

There are five personnel changes in total from the team that lined out in the PRO12 last weekend with two in the backs and three in the pack.

Craig Ronaldson returns from injury to start at inside centre while John Cooney will play at fly-half for the first time in his career. The scrum-half position is filled by the returning Irish international Kieran Marmion.

Up front, Lewis Stevenson comes in to start in the second row, having made ten appearances from the bench this season. The back row sees the return of captain John Muldoon, who missed out through injury last week. His fellow Galway-man Eoin McKeon is named at openside flanker, having reached the 100-cap milestone at the Liberty Stadium in Swansea last weekend.

James Connolly and Naulia Dawai are named among the replacement forwards. New centre Tom Farrell, who was added to the Connacht squad this week, is named in his first matchday squad for the province in what will also be his Champions Cup debut if he is called upon.

Commenting on the upcoming game, Lam said: “We’re excited by the challenge that the Champions Cup presents to us and the opportunity to qualify for the last eight of the competition. First up, we have a big game against Zebre tomorrow and are fully focused on putting in a performance to get us the points we need.

“Zebre are determined to get their first win in Europe and we know what they are capable of on their day. We have the advantage of being at home in front of our supporters so it’s up to us to ensure we get the job done.”

Meanwhile, Zebre have made eight changes to the side who were well beaten by Leinster last time out in the PRO12.

A backline reshuffle sees Lloyd Greeff swap wings, with Mattia Bellini moving to inside centre and Edoardo Padovani from fly-half to outside centre.

Guglielmo Palazzani is the new face on the left wing, as Carlo Canna, who signed a new contract this week, starts at fly-half.

Federico Ruzza switches to number eight as he is joined in back row by Johan Meyer and Zebre captain Maxime Mbandà.

Valerio Bernabò comes into the second row, while Carlo Festuccia is the only other change at hooker.

Form: Connacht have won all five previous meetings with Zebre in the tournament including a 52-7 victory in Round 2. Zebre are still searching for their first victory in the top flight; the nearest they have come to winning so far was a five-point loss at The Sportsground in 2013. A win would represent Connacht's best pool stage performance in a Champions Cup campaign – they have never won four matches in a season. Connacht have averaged the most metres gained (629) and the most clean breaks (15.5) per game this season while Zebre have averaged the fewest metres (215) and clean breaks (3.8).

The teams:

Connacht: 15 Tiernan O’Halloran, 14 Niyi Adeolokun, 13 Rory Parata, 12 Craig Ronaldson, 11 Matt Healy, 10 John Cooney, 9 Kieran Marmion, 8 John Muldoon (c), 7 Eoin McKeon, 6 Sean O’Brien, 5 James Cannon, 4 Lewis Stevenson, 3 Finlay Bealham, 2 Tom McCartney, 1 Denis Buckley
Replacements: 16 Dave Heffernan, 17 JP Cooney, 18 John Andress, 19 James Connolly, 20 Naulia Dawai, 21 Caolin Blade, 22 Tom Farrell, 23 Danie Poolman

Zebre: 15 Kurt Baker, 14 Lloyd Greeff, 13 Edoardo Padovani, 12 Mattia Bellini, 11 Guglielmo Palazzani, 10 Carlo Canna, 9 Marcello Violi, 8 Federico Ruzza, 7 Johan Meyer, 6 Maxime Mbandà (c), 5 Valerio Bernabò, 4 Gideon Koegelenberg, 3 Pietro Ceccarelli, 2 Carlo Festuccia, 1 Andrea Lovotti
Replacements: 16 Oliviero Fabiani, 17 Andrea De Marchi, 18 Dario Chistolini, 19 Joshua Furno, 20 George Biagi, 21 Carlo Engelbrecht, 22 Derick Minnie, 23 Serafin Bordoli

Date: Saturday, January 14
Venue: Sportsground
Kick-off: 13:00 GMT
Referee: Tom Foley (England)
Assistant Referees: Ian Tempest (England), Roger Baileff (England)
TMO: Sean Davey (England)