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zebre
Connacht open their 2013/14 season with a potential banana-skin match against Italy's Zebre. Kick-off at 5pm in the Sportsground.



CONNACHT
Starting XV: 15 Robbie Henshaw, 14 Fionn Carr, 13 Danie Poolman, 12 Eoin Griffin, 11 Matt Healy, 10 Dan Parks, 9 Kieran Marmion
1 Brett Wilkinson, 2 Jason Harris-Wright, 3 Nathan White, 4 Michael Swift(c), 5 Andrew Browne, 6 John Muldoon, 7 Willie Faloon, 8 George Naoupu
Replacements: 16 Sean Henry, 17 Rodney Ah You, 18 Ronan Loughney, 19 Aly Muldowney 20 Jake Heenan, 21 Frank Murphy, 22 Craig Ronaldson, 23 Tiernan O’Halloran
Unavailable/Injured: Denis Buckley, Craig Clarke, Gavin Duffy, Eoin McKeon, Dave McSharry, Miah Nikora, and Kyle Tonetti

Zebre
Starting XV: 15 Dion Berryman, 14 Giovanbattista Venditti, 13 Kameli Ratuvou, 12 Gonzalo Garcia, 11 Giulio Toniolatti, 10 Luciano Orquera, 9 Brendon Leonard
1 Matias Aguero, 2 Davide Giazzon (c), 3 Dario Chistolini, 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 5 Marco Bortolami(c), 6 Mauro Bergamasco, 7 Andries Van Schalkwyk, 8 Samuela Vunisa
Replacements: 16 Andrea Manici, 17 Luca Redolfini, 18 Salvatore Perugini, 19 George Biagi, 20 Filippo Ferrarini, 21 Alberto Chillon, 22 Tommaso Iannone, 23 Matteo Pratichetti
Unavailable/Injured: Paolo Buso, Nicola Cattina, Filippo Cazzola, Filippo Cristiano, And Ruggero Trevisan

Venue: Sportsground, Galway
Date: Saturday, 07th September 2013
Kick-off: 17:00
TV Broadcasts: None, Rabo Matchday Live
Referee: Rhys Thomas (WFU, 2nd competition game)
MATCH DISCUSSION THREAD ON THE FORUM

With a strange and not entirely re-assuring pre-season behind them Connacht are facing a Zebre team whose painful first season passed by without a single victory, but who managed to come very close on a number of occasions, including against Connacht. They have had a more successful pre-season than previously, and have been getting some winning practise in, against PROD2 French teams and Italian clubs. Will that confidence help them take the step up to winning at the PRO12 level though?

Zebre's biggest incoming player is their new scrum-half Brendon Leonard. Leonard is a former All-Black as well a former member of the Waikato Chiefs. He is a dangerous operator who will not be afraid to mix it up against Connacht's backline, and he is partnered by the every able and highly experience Luciano Orquera. These two will not hesitate to let the ball go wide, despite the fact that Zebre have lost two of their biggest threats from last season Tito Tibaldi (Ospreys) and Sinoti Sinoti (Wellington).
Their places have been filled with the incoming Berryman (from Cavalieri Prato), and the versatile Kameli Ratuvou (from Saracens) who will start in the center against Connacht. Ratuvou is joined in the center by Gonzalo Garcia, an Argentine born, Italian capped player, whose 18 points last season all came from the kicking tee. Toniolatti (in from Treviso) and Venditti, a regular in Italian sides since 2012, finish off a quick and attack-minded backline.

In the pack Zebre are buoyed by the return of their skipper, Marco Bortolami, to the Zebre second row having overcome a minor injury that kept him out of the last two pre-season matches. Dario Chistolini a new signing from Gloucester will start in the front row alongside Giazzon and Aguero. In the backrow, Bergamasco is a familiar face, along with their leading try-scorer from last season Andries Van Schalkwyk and Samuela Vunisa, a new Fijian player in from Calavieri Prato.

Connacht have a team that is a great mix of youth and experience, with Henshaw, Marmion, Healy and Harris-Wright being backed up by Parks, Swift, Muldoon and Wilko. The backline is exciting with Henshaw being flanked by Matt Healy (proudly sponsored by The Connacht Clan), and the returning try record holder Fionn Carr. In the centres we have a debut for the combination of Poolman and Griffin, who plays at inside centre instead of his more usual and preferred outside centre position. They are ably provided by the ever-present partnership of Parks and Marmion, who will need to be aware of the directive from the IRB to their referees to enforce a straight feed at the scrum.

The Connacht pack is headed up by a strong front row combination of White, JHW and Wilko, who should be able to handle their Italian counterparts, and it will be interesting to see the new "pre-bind" scrum rule in action, and whether it affects how the scrums play out. In the second row Swift, who will captain the side, is partnered by Browne. The Connacht back row is a very experienced unit, with Muldoon in his best position, alongside George at 8. If Faloon can replicate his form from last season, which won him the Connacht Clan Player of the Season, then Connacht have a back row that can take the game to the Italians.

This match is very important for both sides. For Connacht it could setup a nice early season run, putting behind them their underwhelming pre-season. For Zebre they will be desperate to end the pain they have carried from last season, and to break their duck in the Pro12. In order for Connacht to win they should try and keep the ball moving to force the Italian pack around the park, before closing the game down a little and beginning to pound the fringes. Defense is a worry for Connacht after shipping a lot of points in the pre-season, and with a new centre partnership, including an out of position player, this is an area that Connacht fans will be keeping a close eye on.

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