The home side made hard work of it against a gritty Italian outfit and it took a late Dan Parks’ drop goal to secure a narrow win at the Galway Sportsground.
And Elwood said he was content to have coached his side to a third Heineken Cup win this season.
“We got the victory which was important,” said Elwood, “but when we got the 10 point lead, we took the foot off the pedal and let them run at us. However the lads showed a lot of character to go on and win the game. So it’s nice to stand here and say we got the win, playing ugly, but we have finished on a high.”
Elwood will undoubtedly be leaving the province in a stronger position than he got it and his incoming successor Pat Lam — who will join Connacht in April, knows he’ll have his work cut out to emulate the success of Elwood.
Connacht CEO Tom Sears says Lam is already involved in player recruitment for next season, which may or may not include Heineken Cup rugby, but it will undoubtedly be the main aim for Elwood’s successor as the province celebrated the end of their second season in the elite competition.
Although Connacht had beaten Zebre on two previous occasions this season, it was the Italian side’s first visit to Galway and their second-half revival saw them take the lead for the first time with just 12 minutes remaining.
It all made for a nail-biting finish that was testament to Connacht’s fighting spirit as they sought to finish the season in the competition a high.
The first half passed with few incidents of note, Connacht gaining the upper hand thanks to three penalties and a drop goal from Dan Parks.
Eric Elwood’s men led 12-6 at half-time, with Daniel Halangahu landing a penalty double for Zebre.
Connacht stretched their lead just after the interval when they opted for the scrum, which led to a penalty try, with Parks adding the extras for a 19 — 6 lead.
The score, however, propelled their opponents and they grasped control of the game through some solid support play — skilfully off-loading and driving through the hosts’ defence. Halangahu nailed two penalties to chip away at the lead, and with their tails up, Zebre had Connacht under all sorts of pressure. Industrious replacement scrumhalf Luca Martinella was influential in Zebre’s revival, and a clever switch in attack, caught Connacht’s defence unawares, opening up space down the left wing with Trevisan scoring in the corner.
Halangahu missed the touchline conversion to leave just two points between them after 60 minutes, while Parks’ penalty attempt four minutes later bounced off the upright. And when Zebre struck a 69th minute penalty they took the lead for the first time.
A 71st minute penalty after Zebre once again conceded at the breakdown gave Parks an opportunity to restore the lead, and he struck the 45metre effort between the posts, much to the relief of the 5803 supporters. Then Henshaw took the game by the scruff of the neck, racing through the visitors’ defence, and that paved the way for a Parks drop goal that sealed the match in the 75th minute.
CONNACHT RUGBY: R Henshaw; T O’Halloran, E Griffin, D McSharry, F Vainikolo; D Parks, K Marmion; B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wright, N White (c), M Swift, M McCarthy, M Kearney, J O’Connor, A Browne.
Replacements: D Poolman for Griffin (60m), P O’Donohoe for Marmion, R Loughney for White, and E Reynecke for Harris-Wright (all 72m), E Grace for O’Connor (75m).
ZEBRE: T Tebaldi; G Venditti, R Quartaroli, M Pratichetti, R Trevisan; D Halangahu, A Chillon; S Perugini,D Giazzon, L Redolfini, M van Vuren, J Sole, E Caffini, M Bergamasco (c), F Ferrarini.
Replacements: C Fesguccia for Giazzon, L Martineli for Chillon, D Ryan for Redolfini (all HT), A Mancini for Ferrarini (68m), N Belardo for Caffini and S Pace for Tebaldi (75).
Referee: Pascal Gauzere.