With Toulouse heading the group and expected to overcome Zebre next weekend, the winners in Allianz Park would finish in second place and have a real chance of qualification or a place in the Amlin Cup.
Connacht did all but collect a try bonus point against Zebre in the Sportsground on Saturday to keep their hopes alive, but coach Pat Lam was left sweating on yesterday’s result between joint leaders Toulouse and Saracens in France. Toulouse’s 21-11 victory over the English Premiership outfit ensured Connacht, now with 13 points from three wins, can overtake Sarries to claim that vital runners-up spot.
Understandably, however, he’s not getting carried away.
“We now have a big week ahead. Our cup form has been good, but that first game against Saracens still irks — a case of what could have been.”
Connacht will need to up their game, he says, to pull off a victory at Allianz Park.
“They [Saracens] are aggressive, they are in your face, so some of the things that you can get away with, you won’t against Saracens.
“There is a clear structured game plan that you need to play against that team, which gave us the chance when we should have won at home.
“Part of it is our kicking game and the quality of our kicking game, and again against Zebre, it was pretty inaccurate. We kicked recklessly, it wasn’t in the right place, and we gave ball away at crucial times. It is an area we are going to spend a lot of time on this week.
“The outcome is great because we got the win, and we don’t take wins lightly in European rugby, but ultimately we were not clinical enough, and had so many opportunities that we didn’t take.”
Zebre’s only points came from out-half Luciano Orquera when he opened the scoring with a 16th-minute penalty, and it was not until the 24th minute that Connacht responded. At that stage it needed a player to take the game by the scruff of the neck and Connacht’s right wing Fionn Carr did just that, breaking through from inside his own half to bring play up to the Zebre 22. The result was a penalty from out-half Jack Carty, and, more importantly, Connacht seized control and held it till the end.
A second penalty followed after Zebre’s flanker Filippo Ferrarini was yellow-carded, and five minutes later left wing Matt Healy scrambled across the line for the first try. Carty converted for a 13-3 half-time lead.
Within three minutes of the restart, and with the pack on the front foot, Robbie Henshaw crossed for the second try, again converted by the academy player.
With plenty of time remaining it looked likely Connacht would secure two more tries and a bonus point, but three clear-cut chances were spurned.
Replacement George Naoupu lost possession one metre from the line, while Matt Healy was denied twice. The TMO ruled out the first for a knock-on, and Zebre right wing Giiulio Toniolatti and replacement David Odiete did well to hold Healy up after the left wing intercepted deep in his own half.
“I am pretty disappointed,” said Lam. “Where we are trying to go as a group, we demand higher standards. We are not asking for things they cannot do, and so we have a big week ahead.”
Scorers for Connacht: Tries: Healy, Henshaw. Cons: Carty 2. Pens: Carty 2.
Scorer for Zebre: Pen: Orquera.
CONNACHT: D Leader, F Carr, R Henshaw, E Griffin, M Healy, J Carty, K Marmion, B Wilkinson, S Henry, N White, M Kearney, A Browne, J Muldoon (capt), J Heenan, E McKeon.
Replacements: M Swift for Kearney (18), J Harris-Wright for Henry (45), D Buckley for Wilkinson (57), R Ah You for White (60), G Naoupu for McKeon (64), P O’Donohoe for Marmion (72), D Parks for Carty and G Duffy for Leader (73).
ZEBRE: G Palazzani, G Toniolatti, K Ratuvou, G Garcia, D Berryman, L Orquera, A Chillon, M Aguero, D Giazzon, D Chistolini, Q Geldenhuys (cpt), G Biagi, F Ferrarini, D van Schalkwyk, S Vunisa.
Replacements: R Trevisan for Palazzani (52), N Cattina for Ferrarini (54), A de Marchi for Aguero and D Ryan for Chistolini (both 59), M Bortalami for Biagi (60), R Quartaroli for Garcia (64), D Odiete for Berryman (71).
Referee: Neil Paterson (Scotland).