Zebre 24 Connacht 10: Michael Bradley knows all about building from the bottom in professional rugby — his seven years at the Sportsground took Connacht through the most difficult period in their history — and he is happy with the progress he is making in his first few months with Zebre.
It will take time, so victories like this one at Stadio Lanfranchi in Parma, where they eventually put an out-of-sorts Connacht to the sword, are encouraging, not least because they also beat Ulster earlier in the campaign.
Connacht were rudderless and should have been buried earlier, but Zebre still have work to do on finishing chances.
“I think we played well in the first half, but didn’t get the reward for it,” said Bradley. “We just asked the boys to do the same again in the second half and it should come, and it happened to come for us. We’re very happy. We were pipped by Edinburgh and the Cheetahs, so it was good to close out the victory and pull away at the end. It gives us something to build on.”
Connacht, despite coming out the right side on a lot of calls of referee George Clancy and his Irish TMO Leo Colgan, never looked like salvaging anything from what was the worst performance of the Kieran Keane era. They enjoyed a good chunk of possession in the first half, but lacked penetration to make it count, while out-half Steve Crosbie missed two penalties. A third to the corner yielded nothing and they turned around trailing 6-0.
Centre Tom Farrell, one of the very few to show any form, pounced on sloppy defending to hack the ball and score a try five minutes after the restart.
Crosbie converted and, when Carlo Canna and Jack Carty exchanged penalties, it left Connacht 10-9 ahead with 13 minutes left and savouring the prospect of a first away win in the PRO14, despite the deficiencies in the performance.
However, Zebre got their act together to beat them for the second year in a row. South African Johan Meyer scored and then Canna, one of seven Italian internationals on the team to play against the Spingboks last week, added a drop goal and Gio Vendiitti rubbed salt in the wound with a late try.
“The changing room is deafeningly quiet. Everybody is reflecting,” said Connacht coach Keane.
“I am going to have to sit down and figure it out with some of the coaches. Some individuals didn’t endear themselves very well, did they? Some pretty average performances. It’s what we have go to get right.”
Scorers for Zebre:
Tries: J Meyer, G Venditti; Conversion: C Canna; Penalties: Canna (3); Drop-goal, Canna.
Scorers for Connacht:
Tries: T Farrell; Conversion: S Crosbie; Penalty: J Carty.
M Minozzi; M Bellini, G Bisegni, T Boni, G Venditti; C Canna, M Violi; A Lovotti, O Fabiani, D Chistolini; L Krumov, G Biagi; M Mbanda, J Meyer, R Giammarioli.
D Sisi for Biagi (57), E Bello for Chistolini (57), G Palazzani for Violi (69), C Gaffney for Bellini (78), J Sarto for Mbanda (78).
T O’Halloran; C Kelleher, P Ahki, T Farrell, M Healy; S Crosbie, K Marmion; D Buckley, S Delahunt, F Bealham; U Dillane, J Cannon; E Masterson, J Connolly, J Muldoon.
N Dawai for Connolly (54), J Carty for Crosbie (59), J Mitchell for Marmion (59), D Heffernan for Delahunt (72), C Carey for Bealham (72).
George Clancy (IRFU).
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