Preview: Connacht v Zebre

Date published: October 15 2015

High-flying Connacht will hope to maintain their position in the top four when they welcome bottom side Zebre to the Sportsground on Friday.

The Irish province currently sit in fourth, just one point behind the leaders, Scarlets, while Zebre are yet to pick up a point this season.

Head coach Pat Lam has made just one change from the team that started against Cardiff Blues two weeks ago.

Tighthead prop Rodney Ah You returns to the fray after missing out on the last round with a minor injury. He joins Denis Buckley and hooker Tom McCartney in the front row.

The backline remains unchanged with wing Matt Healy set to make his 50th appearance in a Connacht jersey.

Lam said: "It's good to be kickstarting this 16-game run with a home game in front of our supporters. Protecting our home ground is really important to us and tomorrow's game with Zebre is another must-win.

"We have a lot of respect for Zebre who we've played a good few times over the past few seasons and each time we've played them, we've had to work collectively as a team for our wins.

"They have definitely regrouped after a big loss in the opening week and Scarlets and Dragons just got home against them so we expect a tough battle tomorrow night."

Zebre's hopes have been boosted by the return of their 11 World Cup players, as Andrea Manici and Valerio Bernabò come straight back into the starting line-up.

Full-back Ulrich Beyers and former Wallabies scrum-half Luke Burgess have recovered from slight injuries while Argentinian prop Bruno Postiglioni is forced to withdraw due to a last minute injury.

Three other young Azzurri internationals were selected on the bench: backs Guglielmo Palazzani, Michele Visentin and Carlo Canna. The Benevento born fly-half Canna, a new arrival, earned four caps with Italy at the 2015 World Cup and is ready to gain his first cap with Zebre.

Zebre team manager Andrea de Rossi said: "We approach one of the hardest games of the tournament against an opponent which is always difficult to face: especially in their home stadium. 

"Connacht is a very physical team that display a solid gameplan. It will be an additional opportunity to growth for our team after a very good week of preparation held in Parma."

Form: Connacht's three games so far in the Guinness PRO12 this season have all been won by the home side on the day, whilst the Irish province claimed two league points in their only defeat at Glasgow in round 2. The Irishmen are attempting to win a third straight home game for the first time since the turn of the year. Zebre have lost their last nine Guinness PRO12 encounters and have not obtained a league point since last season's round 19 defeat at home to Scarlets. The Italians' only previous victory over an Irish province came when they defeated Ulster 13-6 in Parma in September 2014. Connacht have won all ten previous fixtures against Zebre in all tournaments, and obtained a try bonus point in their three most recent encounters.

The teams: 

Connacht: 15 Tiernan O'Halloran, 14 Danie Poolman, 13 Rory Parata, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Matt Healy, 10 Jack Carty, 9 Kieran Marmion, 8 Eoin McKeon, 7 Nepia Fox-Matamua, 6 John Muldoon (c), 5 Andrew Browne, 4 Quinn Roux, 3 Rodney Ah You, 2 Tom McCartney, 1 Denis Buckley.
Replacements: 16 Shane Delahunt, 17 Conan O'Donnell, 18 Finlay Bealham, 19 Aly Muldowney, 20 Eoghan Masterson, 21 John Cooney, 22 Craig Ronaldson, 23 Darragh Leader.

Zebre: 15 Ulrich Beyers, 14 Dion Berryman, 13 Tommaso Boni, 12 Matteo Pratichetti, 11 Kayle van Zyl, 10 Edoardo Padovani, 9 Luke Burgess, 8 Andries Van Schalkwyk, 7 Jacopo Sarto, 6 Johan Meyer, 5 George Biagi (c), 4 Valerio Bernabò, 3 Pietro Ceccarelli, 2 Andrea Manici, 1 Andrea Lovotti.
Replacements: 16 Tommaso D'Apice, 17 Andrea De Marchi, 18 Emiliano Coria, 19 Marco Bortolami, 20 Emiliano Caffini, 21 Guglielmo Palazzani, 22 Michele Visentin, 23 Carlo Canna.

Date: Friday, October 16
Venue: Sportsground, Galway
Kick-off: 19:30 BST
Referee: Ben Whitehouse (Wales)
Assistant referees: Stuart Gaffikin (Ireland), Stuart Douglas (Ireland)