Connacht brought their second successive Heineken Cup campaign to a satisfactory conclusion, winning a game they could have lost for a change against the Italian newcomers on Friday night.
Not for the first time this season, the home side were grateful for the unerring boot of veteran out-half Dan Parks. Four kicks and a conversion from Parks had helped Connacht build up a thirteen-point lead early in the second half but when they lost their way and allowed Zebre to take a shock 69th minute lead, it was Parks who steadied the ship and guided Connacht home with two successful three-pointers.
A decent crowd of 5,803 had crammed into the Sportsground and they got some early excitement when the outstanding Robbie Henshaw made a searing break upfield. Nothing came of it but Parks soon put things right when he kicked Connacht in front after 10 minutes.
However Connacht infringed straight from the kick off and Zebre’s Australian out-half Daniel Halangahu kicked the Italians level. Parks restored Connacht three-point lead soon after and in the 25th minute he dropped a goal to give Connacht a 9-3 lead.
Another Halangahu penalty kept Zebre in touch but seven minutes before the break, Parks extended Connacht’s lead once more.
There had been precious little excitement in the first period save for Henshaw’s break but the home fans would have been expecting their favourites to kick on and secure the victory after the break. This looked very likely a few minutes in when Connacht established field position deep in the Zebre 22.
Pascal Gauzere had already signalled a penalty off a five-metre scrum but when Kieran Marmion was tackled from an offside position, the French official went under the posts to signal a penalty try. Parks added the conversion and Connacht seemed to be in an unassailable position against a side that had lost all eighteen of their games this season.
However Zebre did not lie down and as Connacht’s energy levels dropped off somewhat they closed to within a score with two penalties from Halangahu. They had Connacht under severe pressure near the hour mark but the home side resisted. It was short lived though, as Zebre scored a fine and well-deserved try on the hour.
Giovannbatista Venditti took advantage of Marmion’s defensive error and made the initial break which was finished off in the left corner by Ruggero Trevisan.
Halangahu missed the touchline conversion but the former Waratahs player gave the Parma-based side a shock lead in the 69th minute when he converted a penalty from the left.
The Sportsground was silenced as this stage as Connacht seemed set for an embarrassing defeat against the Heineken Cup’s worst performing side. Cometh the hour, cometh the man though, as Parks steadied nerves with an excellent penalty to restore Connacht’s lead two minutes after.
Five minutes from the whistle, another great break by Man of the Match Hensshaw gave Connacht the opportunity to close it out and Parks expertly chipped over the drop goal.
Zebre needed a try now and they made one last desperate attempt to steal it with time almost up as they rumbled towards the line. It was not to be and the stadium emitted a massive sigh of relief when the home defence turned the ball over and cleared.
So it’s three wins out of six then for Connacht in their second Heineken Cup season, which is a big improvement on last year. Hopefully they will get a third chance next season to improve further, but it most likely depends on a third successive Heineken Cup win for an Irish side. C’mon Munster and Ulster!
Robbie Henshaw; Tiernan O’Halloran, Eoin Griffin, David McSharry, Fetu’u Vainikolo; Dan Parks, Kieran Marmion; Brett Wilkinson, Jason Harris-Wright, Nathan White (C); Michael Swift, Mike McCarthy; Mick Kearney, Johnny O’Connor, Andrew Browne. Replacements: Danie Poolman for Griffin 60 mins, Paul O’Donohoe for Marmion, Ronan Loughney for White, Etienne Reynecke for Harris-Wright 72 mins, Eoghan Grace for O’Connor 75 mins.
Tito Tebaldi; Giovannbatista Venditti, Roberto Quarteroli, Matteo Pratichetti, Ruggero Trevisan; Daniel Halangahu, Albert Chillon; Salvatore Perugini, Davide Giazzon, Luca Redolfini; Mike Van Vuren, Josh Sole; Emiliano Caffini, Mauro Bergamasco (C), Filippo Ferrarini. Replacements: Carlo Festuccia for Giazzon, Luca Martinelli for Chillon, David Ryan for Redolfini half-time, Andrea Manici for Ferrarini 68 mins, Nicola Belardo for Caffini, Samuele Pace for Tebaldi 75 mins
Referee: Pascal Gauzere (France)