CONNACHT PUT IN a hugely impressive performance in their Heineken Cup pool clash with Zebre as they destroyed the Italians 33 — 6.
Defence won the day for the opening half hour and it has been left to the goalkickers to register the bulk of the points for their respective teams. It took a moment of set-piece cunning for Connacht, through George Naoupu, to breach the Zebre defence. Dan Parks kicked 23 points and a second-half try for Mata Fifita confirmed the visitor’s dominance.
Rival outhalves Parks and Lucian Orquera traded penalties in the opening six minutes before Connacht put together an impressive five-minute spell of steady, phase-building rugby. Their efforts were rewarded on 12 minutes when Parks, from 35 metres out, landed a penalty after the Italians infringed at the breakdown.
As predicted by former Connacht hooker Adrian Flavin before the match, the contest looks set to be decided by the combative packs. To that end, Connacht coach Pat Lam will be grateful that he has Craig Clarke and George Naoupu to call upon. Both men have been to the fore in the first half with much of the play taking place well outside the 22′s.
Zebre’s David Odiete claims a high ball ahead of Matt Healy of Connacht. INPHO/James Crombie
James So’oialo, making his first start for the province at fullback, had the travelling Connacht support out of their seats after 25 minutes. His kick, in behind the Zebre defence, forced the Italians into a defensive 5m lineout. They claimed the throw and cleared but would soon be flummoxed by the visitors at lineout time.
With 30 minutes on the clock, and Connacht forcing a 5m attacking lineout, hooker Sean Henry located Naoupu at the front of the lineout after a dummy lift at the back. The training ground move worked a treat at the No.8 crashed over from close range. Parks nailed his touchline conversion and the 13 — 3 lead was the least Connacht deserved.
Lam’s men were denied a second try just before half-time as Henshaw was adjudged to be in touch as he passed back to So’oialo on the right flank. Zebre had been stretched by a superb Poolman break up the left but the TMO went against them. The blow was softened as play came back for a penalty that Parks slotted comfortably over.
The Australia-born Scottish international added another three-pointer just before the break to leave Connacht well in command. He added three more penalties in the second-half as Connacht sought to sap the energy from Zebre before turning their late attentions to collecting a bonus point.
Fifita finished off a hugely impressive drive from just about the Zebre 22. A committed defence was left short on the left flank and the flanker buried his way over for his side’s second try. Fittingly, after his impressive points haul, Parks was named man-of-the-match.
Connacht: James So’oialo; Robbie Henshaw, Craig Ronaldson, Danie Poolman; Dan Parks, Kieran Marmion; Brett Wilkinson, Sean Henry, Rodney Ah You; Michael Swift (c), Craig Clarke; Andrew Browne, Jake Heenan, George Naoupu.
Replacements: Jason Harris-Wright, JP Cooney, Ronan Loughney, Aly Muldowney, Mata Fifita, Paul O’Donohoe, Dave McSharry, Gavin Duffy.
More to follow…