Connacht withstand Zebre challenge


Connacht 25 Zebre 20: Connacht ended their Heineken Cup campaign with a third win from six Pool Three games, thanks to victory over bottom side Zebre at The Sportsground this evening. In difficult conditions, it didn’t come easy, and was far from the sizzling send-off the home fans might have hoped for against a side still seeking a first ever point in the competition.

Having led by six points at the break – after a drop-goal and three penalties from Dan Parks compared to two from Daniel Halangahu in the first half – Connacht restarted brightly with a penalty try before surrendering the lead when Ruggero Trevisan touched down after an impressive Italian response.

The normally unflappable Parks had endured a nercy performance, at times, but delievered again when he landed a 71st minute penalty from in front of the posts to edge Connacht back in front before affording them some breathing space with an opportunist’s drop goal.

The former Scotland international's 20-point contribution left Connacht on 12 points, just three shy of Biarritz in second, who had to settle for a losing bonus at home to table-toppers Harlequins. Conor O'Shea's 'Quins all but wrapped up top-seed status for the quarter-finals with a 16-9 victory, their sixth from as many games.

The Galway rain abated before kick-off and the first sign of a Connacht threat came with a 40-metre burst from Robbie Henshaw, who has been called up to the extended Ireland squad. The teenage full-back’s raid forward was a rare moment of excitement in a slow first quarter that lacked any real spark and tempo.

A firm long range penalty strike from Parks edged the hosts ahead, but hey were penalised for not rolling away from the restart, allowing Halangahu to bring the Italians level.

Parks answered back with a neatly slotted kick from inside the 22 as Connacht improved their accuracy, using their strong set piece game to dictate proceedings.

Although captain Nathan White was part of a commanding frontrow, they were unable to hammer home that advantage and relied again on the boot of Parks. He drilled over a drop goal while he had a penalty advantage to move the homeside 9-3 clear.

Connacht’s own errors gave the Italians the opportunity hit back swiftly, and Australian Halangahu stepped up to split the posts from distance.

With the try-lines not threatened at both ends, a third successful penalty from Parks brought the half to a close.

He kicked Connacht to within five metres of the whitewash early in the second period, and the pressure took its toll. Zebre leaked a penalty from the ensuing lineout maul and then two scrum infringements, with White, Jason Harris-Wright and Brett Wilkinson dominating their front row opponents, led to a penalty try.

Parks converted but there was no sign of Zebre wilting as Bergamasco willed his team-mates forward and Connacht indiscipline gave them further scoring chances.

Halangahu continued his strong showing with the boot, firing over a quick-fire penalty brace after 49 and 51 minutes.

The Italian outfit pressed for a try shortly afterwards, going close through their forwards with replacements David Ryan and Matias Aguero solidifying their scrum initially.

Zebre’s sudden resurgence almost erased Connacht’s lead as they broken from a scrum on the 10-metre line, centres Roberto Quartaroli and Matteo Pratichetti punching the hole which led to Trevisan scoring out wide.

The difficult conversion was missed by Halangahu, leaving Connacht just two points ahead with Parks suffering his first miss entering the final quarter.

Halangahu’s lead score in the 69th minute set up a nervy finish, but a ruck offence ensured that Parks restored Connacht’s advantage just two minutes later.

Then a strong run from Henshaw helped set up the insurance score — a second drop goal from Parks — as Connacht triumphed in Elwood’s last European match in charge of the Irish province.

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