Connacht 43 Zebre 3
Connacht hit their stride in the final quarter as they ran out 43-3 bonus-point winners over second-from-bottom Zebre at the Sportsground.
Winger Danie Poolman’s 27th-minute try was supplemented by four Ian Porter penalties as the hosts built a 17-3 half-time lead in very wet conditions. David Odiete landed Zebre’s lone reply.
Zebre were missing 13 Italy internationals and had to cope with three sin-binnings, as well as captain Mauro Bergamasco’s departure through injury.
Pat Lam’s men started the second half with a Michael Kearney maul try and they capitalised on two successive Zebre yellow cards to claim a penalty try while replacements John Cooney and Jack Carty also touched down.
The expectant crowd came to see Mils Muliaina’s belated debut for the province following elbow surgery and the All Black centurion, who had not played since March, provided the assist for Poolman’s opener.
Early half-breaks from Bundee Aki, another home debutant, and Dave McSharry showed Connacht’s intent, with some good handling in the heavy rain setting up two long-range penalties which Porter pushed wide.
In worsening conditions, McSharry unfortunately lost his footing near the try-line after a fine Matt Healy run. Porter converted the follow-up penalty to make it 3-0.
Aki was caught offside in defence as Odiete levelled in the 17th minute, before Porter responded two minutes later.
Although the province’s lineout was a cause of frustration, Zebre continued to concede penalties and flanker Filippo Cristiano paid the price for a 25th-minute maul infringement.
Within two minutes, the hosts had their first try. Their powerful scrum provided the platform and winger Poolman, who was fed by Muliaina, stepped inside Hendrik Daniller’s challenge in the right corner to score an unconverted effort.
New Connacht front-rower Tom McCartney had an earlier than expected arrival on the pitch, replacing injured hooker Jason Harris-Wright, while Zebre also had to adjust after Bergamasco hobbled off.
The Connacht pack pushed Zebre off their own scrum ball to set up Porter’s third successful penalty, and late pressure yielded three more points for the goal-kicking scrum-half.
Lam’s side threatened on the back of their dominant scrum early in the second period and a terrific driving maul resulted in Kearney crashing over for a seven-pointer.
Porter’s replacement Cooney did just enough to deny Odiete a try in the right corner as Zebre pressed during a purple patch in the hosts’ 22.
Connacht stepped up the intensity entering the closing 20 minutes, as forwards Andries Ferreira (collapsing a maul) and Andrea Lovotti (bringing down a five-metre scrum) were sent to the bin in quick succession.
Referee Ben Whitehouse awarded the penalty try at the very next scrum, and Cooney soon registered the bonus point following a neat interchange with man-of-the-match George Naoupu off the side of a scrum.
Edoardo Padovani’s dropped pass was hacked on by Carty, who showed impressive dribbling skills to finish off his 68th-minute try which he converted for a 40-point winning margin.