Zebre 10 Connacht 19
Connacht got their Heineken Cup campaign off to a winning start with a scrappy victory away to tournament newcomers Zebre in Parma.
John Muldoon’s 62nd-minute try proved vital for the visitors who had dominated the third quarter but were starting to look like they would rue a series of missed opportunities in the home 22.
Connacht’s former Scotland fly-half Dan Parks added the remainder of his side’s points from four penalties and a conversion.
Connacht started the match well, retaining possession and stretching the Italian outfit’s defence at every opportunity.
Their early endeavour was rewarded with a fourth-minute penalty from Parks but that proved to be a rare venture in Zebre territory.
For the remainder of the half, most of the play belonged to the home side as they used their solid lineout platform to build pressure.
Quintin Geldenhuys and Mauro Bergamasco carried to great effect but basic errors proved costly as four visits to the Connacht 22 yielded just one Daniel Halangahu penalty.
The Zebre full-back missed two other kicks at goal during the first half and after 17 minutes, Connacht turned a brief foray into home territory into three more points from the boot of Parks to restore their lead.
A key turning point came right on the stroke of half-time when the vastly experienced Bergamasco was penalised for a tackle on Tiernan O’Halloran that was somewhat harshly deemed to be a ’tip tackle’.
Referee Leighton Hodges sin-binned the 93-times capped Italy international and Parks kicked a brilliant penalty from the halfway line for a six-point buffer at the break.
Connacht then dominated the first 20 minutes of the second half but failed to score during the sin-bin period despite some incisive back-line play from the likes of Heineken Cup debutant Robbie Henshaw, Tiernan O’Halloran and Fetu’u Vainikolo.
Handling errors and poor decision-making underlined a tension in their play as they tried to add to their only previous win in the tournament – a hard-fought defeat of Harlequins in the Galway wind and rain last January.
On the hour mark, Eric Elwood’s men earned a penalty from a five-metre scrum and opted to stretch the lead to two scores through the boot of Parks.
That settled nerves and barely two minutes later a turnover in their own 22, forced by the excellent Denis Buckley, led to the game’s first try.
Kieran Marmion hacked downfield, Mike McCarthy’s chase was tremendous and he forced a penalty from Luciano Orquera. The quick-thinking Muldoon took a quick tap and went in from 10 metres out, scoring under the posts with Parks converting.
That score should have settled Connacht but the final 20 minutes were error strewn and the visitors were unable to relax as Zebre scored a converted try from replacement flanker Filippo Ferranini in the 72nd minute, although the hosts could not get any closer in the remaining time.