Overcoming a tricky Zebre side that had been gunning for a first Heineken Cup win, Connacht joined Saracens on five points behind Pool Three leaders Toulouse. Although they did not get a four-try bonus point, it was their biggest win over the Italian franchise in their five meetings.
Man of the match Dan Parks, relishing the ideal conditions and Connacht’s game plan over the past two weeks, produced a near flawless kicking display to post 23 points, while George Naoupu and replacement flanker Mata Fifita scored a try in each half.
“To post 33 points over here was pretty good,” said Parks. “It was all about getting beyond the two-try lead and in the last 10 minutes trying to push on to get two more tries. Possibly we could have done it, but to Zebre’s credit they kept coming and never gave up.”
Parks nailed 14 points before the break and, allied to Naoupu’s 29th minute try, Connacht led 19-3 at the break. Mata Fifita grabbed the second try after the break with both efforts engineered by assistant coach Dan McFarland. Naoupu breached the defence from a five-metre lineout and had enough stretch to find the line, while Fifita tore around the front of the lineout from Craig Clarke’s catch to add the second, stretching the lead to 33-6.
“I have to take my hat off to Dan,” said Connacht coach Pat Lam. “Every game he looks for special lineouts that will work and we scored two straight off his blackboard. It just shows that when we play as a team, we can compete.
“Yes, some execution we didn’t get right, but we are getting there, and now we get ready for a tough assignment against Leinster. It’s all about how we keep growing and how we keep getting better.”
The hosts played more rugby, edging both territory and possession, but it was not reflected on the scoreboard with outhalf Luciana Orquera scoring just two penalties. Connacht’s tackle count was double that of the Parma outfit, denying the hosts a much-needed try boost.
Andrew Browne, Craig Clarke and Jake Heenan, who is fulfilling his credentials as a genuine open side, led that tackle count, while once again the pack produced go-forward ball for Parks from the secure set piece.
Although Connacht rode their luck early in the second half, they remained composed and absorbed everything thrown at them by full-back Ruggero Trevisan, Dion Berryman and the big ball carrying eight Samuela Vunisa.
“Our defence is testament to the team character,” said Lam. “We are getting better and better in our defence by staying connected. It just shows how gutting last week was. We take this win now, get back into the Rabo and prepare for a good derby against Leinster.”
CONNACHT: J So’oialo, D Poolman, R Henshaw, C Ronaldson, M Healy, D Parks, K Marmion, B Wilkinson, S Henry, R Ah You, M Swift, C Clarke, A Browne, J Heenan, G Naoupu.
Replacements: G Duffy for So’oialo (42), J Harris-Wright for Henry (44), R Loughney for Ah You (46), A Muldowney for Swift (54), M Fifita for Heenan and D McSharry for Henshaw (65), JP Cooney for Wilkinson (67), P O’Donohoe for Marmion (70).
ZEBRE: R Trevisan, D Berryman, T Iannone, G Garcia, D Odiete, L Orquera, B Leonard, M Aguero, T D’Apice, D Chistolini, M Van Vuren, M Bortalami (c), M Bergamasco, A Van Schalkwyk, S Vunisa.
Replacements: L Sarto for Odiete (41), D Giazzon for D’Apice (51), K Ratuvou for Garcia (51), A De Marchi for M Aguero (60), L Leisbon for Chistolini (60), E Caffini for Bortalami (67), A Chillon, for Trevisan (70), F Cristiano for Bergamaso (73), M Aguero for De Marchi (80).
Referee: I Davies (Wales).