Pita Ahki takes centre stage for Connacht in Italy

Connacht coach Kieran Keane says a resurgent Zebre will pose a huge threat in Parma this afternoon as his side aim to bounce back to winning ways before refocusing next week to the European Challenge Cup campaign.

Keane has made seven changes to the side that lost 36-30 at Cardiff Blues, with new signing Pita Ahki starting in the centre, having impressed off the bench in his debut at the Arms Park.

Irish internationals, scrum-half Kieran Marmion and lock Ultan Dillane, also return to first-team action at Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi. Connacht fell to a first league defeat away to Zebre last term (25-22), and Keane knows this could be another tricky assignment.

“The competition is pretty close right throughout the PRO14. I don’t think there is a great divide or division in it,” says Keane. “It is an on-the-day scenario for me, and you just have to be a little bit off to get beaten. You have to be on and up for it basically the whole time.”

There are three changes up front where last week’s two-try hero, hooker Shane Delahunt, gets a well-deserved start.

Dillane starts in the second row with James Connolly coming in at openside flanker. In the backline, Marmion and Steve Crosbie link at half-back with Ahki starting at outside centre, and Cian Kelleher named on the right wing.

This is Keane’s first time in Italy since 1979 when he lined out for the All Blacks in a victory over the Italians. On that same day, an Air New Zealand passenger plane crashed in the Antarctic. “When we came off the field, we got that news,” recalled Keane. “We didn’t know if any of the lads had family members or close friends involved. It’s certainly still in my head.”

ZEBRE:

M Minozzi; M Bellini, G Bisegni, T Boni, G Venditti; C Canna, M Violi; A Lovotti, O Fabiani, D Chistolini; L Krumov, G Biagi; M Mbanda, J Meyer, R Giammarioli.

Replacements:

L Luus, C Ah-Nau, E Bello, D Sisi, J Sarto, G Palazzani, S Bordoli, C Gaffney.

CONNACHT:

T O’Halloran; C Kelleher, P Ahki, T Farrell, M Healy; S Crosbie, K Marmion; D Buckley, S Delahunt, F Bealham; U Dillane, J Cannon; E Masterson, J Connolly, J Muldoon.

Replacements:

D Heffernan, P McCabe, C Carey, C Gallagher, N Dawai, J Mitchell, J Carty, E Griffin.

Referee:

George Clancy (Ireland).

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