Connacht victory sets up last eight tie against Saracens
Lam acknowledges win marks province’s best season in Heineken Cup competition
Connacht’s Robbie Henshaw celebrates scoring his side’s second try with Eoin Griffin and Sean Henry. Photograph: Inpho/James Crombie
Connacht will travel to Saracens this weekend to seek their fourth European victory of the season and an unlikely place in the quarter-finals among the aristocracy.
But while coach Pat Lam acknowledged that this win marks Connacht’s best season in the Heineken Cup, he was frustrated by his side’s failure to exploit further scoring opportunities against a muted Zebre team on Saturday afternoon. Lam spent yesterday watching the other group game between Toulouse and Saracens and doing the mathematics to find out what Connacht will have to do next weekend and admitted that their task would have been slightly easier if they had manufactured a bonus point.
“We are happy with the win but it is a pretty sombre changing room,” said Lam afterwards. We weren’t clinical enough and had so many opportunities we didn’t take. As a group, we demand higher standards and we aren’t asking for things they can’t do. It will be a totally different game against Saracens. They are aggressive and in your face so some of the things we can get away with we won’t next week. There is a clear structured game plan you need to play against that team. The quality of your kicking game is important and we kicked recklessly at times today and gave ball away so we will have to spend time on that.”
This latest win underscored the fluctuating graph of Connacht’s season. This was their seventh win on the spin against Zebre but the Italians sit above them in the RaboDirect table. Connacht played in creative bursts here, slinging the ball about aimlessly in front of a contented Italian defence for the first 15 minutes and then engineering a terrific period of play kick-started by the aggressive adventurism of Fionn Carr, who twice cut through the heart of the visiting cover to give Connacht badly needed forward motion.
The opening period was a study in tentativeness: an early penalty struck wide by Jack Carty; a loose pass from Eoin Griffin intercepted by Kameli Ratovou – who was gobbled up by Matt Healy; a rushed 22 tap by Mick Kearney on 12 minutes in which he somehow injured himself and a scrum against the head which led to a Zebre penalty and the lone Italian score of the game for Luciano Orquera.
Then, 23 minutes into the afternoon, Connacht settled and exhibited the best of themselves. Carr and then Marmion broke the Italian line for Connacht’s first meaningful attack and a daring chip along the touchline by Robbie Henshaw led to scrambling Italian cover and a cynical stop by Filippo Ferrarini as Nathan White was thundering towards the try line. Ferrarini was yellow carded, Carthy struck a second crisp penalty and the home team were on their way. Heenan came thundering out of the 22 on the restart and when Connacht recycled possession, Carty leaned back and delivered a perfect kick deep into the Zebre 22, straight from the O’Gara playbook of distance and accuracy. Three minutes later Matt Healy half dived, half scrambled over the line for his fourth try of the season. Referee Neil Paterson consulted the video room as to whether there was a double movement The try was awarded but Healy had a second-half try disqualified for knocking on as he touched down and in the 73rd minute he seemed odds-on to score when he rose to claim a drifting Italian skip pass and broke into open ground.
The Sportsground faithful bellowed b
ut Healy was caught on his long dash for glory by Giiulio Toniolatti.
Those two chances grated and being whistled for a crooked put-in after 74 minutes when the Connacht pack had twice forced the Italians to collapse and were close to a penalty-try decision was another hard-earned chance which dissipated.
Still, Connacht’s young blades showed glittering potential at times.
Darragh Leader was generally authoritative at fullback and Carty earned warm applause upon his withdrawal. Eoin Griffin saw plenty of ball and his improvised through-the-legs pass after Heenan and Michael Swift had orchestrated a driving maul to the Zebre line kept alive Connacht’s brightest period of play, which Henshaw finished with a slick inside step which opened up a clean corridor under the Italian posts. Henshaw’s aggression and physique are often referenced but he has terrific balance.
Afterwards, Lam suggested that he felt Henshaw was ready for a crack at international level.
“I believe so. In the build up to the world cup, it is ideal. Some of the adjustments he is making at centre are really helping.
“He did well against the Legend last week and again today. He is too young to be a pure centre. It is between 13 and 15.
The best 13s in the world . . . they are like wine. Maturing age is about 29, 30. They take time to settle. He is just doing it a lot faster than people his age normally do and that is the talent he had. [Playing] 15 gives him a chance to express himself more but for our team, 13 is working out well for us.”
The disappointment for the crowd of 5,217 at the Sportsground was that Henshaw’s 44th minute try proved to be the high water mark of the day rather than the rallying cry for a route.
Zebre summoned a 10-minute burst of controlled mauling which yielded two penalties. The visitors decided to kick to touch and threatened the Connacht line before knocking on. By then, Connacht had 10 minutes in which to produce two tries and could make no more impact on the scoreboard.
Now they must prepare for Saracens and that will require an out-of-their-skins 80 minutes if Connacht are to push into new waters.