Connacht trounce pitiful Zebre to inch towards quarter-finals
The home side survived an early scare to rack up 66 points and a bonus point win
Connacht’s Tiernan O’Halloran scores try number eight as his side cruised past Zebre in the Champions Cup. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho
Connacht 66 Zebre 21
A ten-try haul for Connacht underlined a clinical Champions Cup performance as they prepare for next week’s crucial visit to Toulouse. A bonus point was the least that was expected from the Pro 12 champions for this lunchtime kick-off in the sun-soaked Sportsground.
After a shaky start, they warmed to the task with a high-octane running performance which made light of the horrendous injury list overshadowing their mid-season momentum.
Zebre are a sorry team just now and it was hard not to feel sympathy for their predicament: winless, demoralised and uncertain of whether the club will be in existence by the end of the season. Little wonder the applause at the end of this was warm and sustained as they left the field.
Still, the first 15 minutes were concerning for Connacht. They concocted a wonderful third minute try, with outhalf John Cooney and Tieran O’Halloran stretching the Zebre cover, before Matt Healy came thundering through a perfect angle to gallop home unopposed.
But for the next 10 minutes they lived in their own 22, twice failing to clear their lines and getting into trouble of their own making.
In the seventh minute they turned the ball over after Rory Pareta, receiving under immense pressure, brought it into contact. Federico Ruzza, Zebre’s big number eight, occupied too many Connacht defenders every time he drove from the base of the scrum and, while flanker Johan Meyer crashed over for the Italians first try, Ruzza himself delivered the second under the posts.
Carlo Canna made easy work of both conversions and after 13 minutes Zebre had a 14-7 lead and had introduced a rare note of funereal quiet to the Sportsground.
The passivity of Connacht’s defence and their rigorous refusal to kick to touch from their own 22 facilitated the surprise opening.
“We are bitterly disappointed with our defence,” said Pat Lam.
“We had a goal not to let them cross the line. It is just a reminder fo what happened in the last few games. Little moments that have killed us. We need to have a good week this week. I can see some of the things we have been working on coming out there.”
Nonetheless, it was an encouraging response for an Italian club reportedly on the brink of dissolution and undoubtedly suffering from the 10-try mauling they suffered from Leinster in their last outing.
As Connacht restarted, there was a flickering worry that the home team weren’t quite firing. Cooney failed to find touch with a routine penalty kick in the 16th minute and they coughed up a promising attacking position a minute later for indiscipline in the break down, on the very day that Zebre were in the mood to surpass themselves.
But from the 19th minute on Cooney’s partnership with Kieran Marmion began to fire and Connacht ran home four high quality tries before retiring for the Jaffa Cakes at the break.
Marmion was architect in chief in the scores: he rendered the Zebre line flat footed with an angled run before playing big Sean O’Brien, who controlled the ball on the run before delivering the killer pass to Craig Ronaldson. Cooney was on the centre’s shoulder to accept the try-scoring pass.
In the 23rd minute, with a penalty advantage and the ball in hand dead centre in the Zebre 22, Cooney stabbed a gorgeous kick behind the posts for Tiernan O’Halloran to touch down. The crowd could sense the Italian resistance ebbing by the minute now.
So could the players.
Owning possession at this stage, the Connacht pack mauled their way to the corner, with Finlay Bealham touching down before repeating the trick on their next attack, with Marmion patiently coaxing his pack forward until they reached the try line before touching down for a 40-14 lead.
It was difficult for Zebre to return to the field in any mood other than deep apprehension and within five minutes they were facing a repeat of the Leinster nightmare.
Matt Healy made the most of abysmal tackling to gallop down the sideline for his second try and then, in the 44th minute, the Italian cover disintegrated as O’Halloran embarked on a blazing solo run.
Zebre made the most of a rare visit to the Connacht 22 with centre Mattia Bellini driving under the posts but they looked vulnerable every time the home side looked to attack the ever increasing gaps.
The ball handling skills and pass-timing Pat Lam has instilled in his side remains breathtaking and the carrier, with options right and left, always seems to take the right option at the right time.
The tries kept coming.
O’Halloran, Blade and Marmion all sprinted home in the sunshine. The day had turned into an exhibition of out-and-out Showtime stuff at the Sportsground: all that was missing was Jack Nicholson in shades.
They threatened to surpass their best previous European (Challenge Cup) total of 75. They fell short but no worries. Tiernan O’Halloran accepted the man-of-the match glass ware after another razor-sharp outing at fifteen.
Connacht as an entity know what it is to be threatened with oblivion. This latest pummelling will do little to attract financial backers for the Italian club. Connacht have loftier goals now.
The Sportsground crowd of 5,607 emptied quickly with the 3.15 kick-off between Wasps and Toulouse beckoning
That’s where the Galway club visit next weekend for what Lam described as “probably the biggest game in Connacht’s history.”
Scoring sequence – 3 mins: Healy try. 4 mins: Cooney conv 7-0; 7 mins Mayer try, Canna conv 7-7; 12 mins Ruzza try, Canna con 7-14; 19 mins Cooney try, Cooney con 14-14 23 mins O’Halloran try, Cooney con 21-14; 29 mins Bealham try, Cooney con 28-14; 37 mins Marmion try 33-14; 40 mins Ronaldson try, Cooney con 40-14. 42 mins Healy try, Cooney con; 47-14; 44 mins O Halloran try, Cooney con 54-14; Marmion try, Cooney con 61-14; Bellini try, Canna con 61-21; Blade try 66-21.
CONNACHT: Tiernan O’Halloran; Niyi Adeolokun, Rory Parata, Craig Ronaldson, Matt Healy; John Cooney, Kieran Marmion; Denis Buckley. Tom McCartney, 3 Finlay Bealham; Lewis Stevenson, James Cannon; Sean O’Brien, Eoin McKeon; John Muldoon.
Replacements: JP Cooney for D Buckley (38 mins), Tom Farrell for C Ronaldson (43 mins), Naulia Dawai for 8 J Muldooon (47 mins), 16 D Heffernan for 2 T McCartney (47 mins), 18 J Andress for 3 F Bealham (47 mins), J Connolly for S O’Brien (50 mins), C Blade for K Marmion (55 mins), D Poolman for T O’Halloran (58 mins), S O’Brien for J Connolly (60 mins), J Connolly for McKeon (68 mins).
ZEBRE: Kurt Baker; Lloyd Greff, Edoardo Padovani, Mattia Bellini, Guglielmo Palazzani; Carlo Canna, Marcello Violi; Andrea Lovotti, Carlo Festuccia, Pietro Ceccarelli; Gidoen Koegelenberg, Valerio Bernabo; Maxime Mbanda, Johan Meyer, Federico Ruzza.
Replacements: Oliveiro Fabiani for C Festuccia (47 mins). Andrea De Marchi for A Lovotti (57 mins), Dario Christiolini for V Bernabo; Serafom Bordoli for C Canna (63 mins) 21 Carlo Engelbrecht for M Violi (71 mins), George Biagi for Meyer (76 mins).
Referee: T Foley (Eng).