Parks guides Connacht to impressive away win over Zebre
Former Scottish international kicks 23 points in an assured display by the visitors in Parma
George Naoupu stretches for the line to score his side’s opening try against Zebre at the Stadio XXV Aprile in Parma. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Zebre 6 Connacht 33
Head coach Pat Lam is hoping Connacht are coming into form at just the right time.
Having negotiated a tricky assignment to preserve their 100 per cent record over Italian outfit Zebre and grab their first Heineken Cup victory this season, Connacht now head to the RDS this week with a little more pep in the step than they had when the Pro 12 took a break for European action.
“ It just shows that when we play as a team, we can compete,” says Lam. “Yes, some execution we didn’t get right, but we are getting there, and now we get ready for a tough assignment against Leinster. It’s all about how we keep growing and how we keep getting better.”
Connacht recovered from a frustrating, narrow loss to Saracens last week to produce an assured and composed performance against the Italian side which had targeted the fixture as its best chance to secure a first Heineken Cup win. Instead Connacht posted their biggest winning margin over the Italian franchise in their five meetings.
Although Connacht did not achieve a four try-bonus point – only targeting that objective in the final 10 minutes – this workmanlike win was enough to put them level on championship points with Saracens.
“First and foremost you want to nail the game and we take nothing lightly. I am sure Saracens and Toulouse wanted the bonus, but they didn’t get them either. That’s Heineken Cup rugby.
“I am extremely proud of the effort our players put in. There were some really good performances, particularly when you consider the amount of injuries. We had new guys stepping in, which is testament to our culture that they feel comfortable coming in and doing the job.”
Man of the match Dan Parks produced “his best game of the season”. Relishing both the ideal conditions and Connacht’s game plan over the past two weeks, his kicking for goal and from hand was near flawless.
With only the last conversion hitting the upright, the former Scottish international posted 23 points to put the game beyond Zebre’s reach. George Naoupu and replacement Mata Fifita grabbed a try in each half - the result of two moves engineered by assistant coach Dan McFarland who has continued to drive the Connacht pack forward in Lam’s new reign.
“I have to take my hat off to Dan. Every game he looks for special lineouts that will work and we scored two straight off his blackboard.”
No 8 Naoupu grabbed the first on 29 minutes when he breached the middle of the five-metre lineout and stretched to find the line, helping Connacht to a 19-3 half time lead. With the game secure, replacement flanker Fifita tore around the front of the lineout from Craig Clarke’s catch to add the second, stretching the lead to 33-6.
The hosts played more rugby, edging both territory and possession, but could only muster two penalties from outhalf Luciana Orquera. Connacht’s tackle count was double that of the Parma outfit, denying the hosts a much-needed try boost to keep their slim hopes alive, as Andrew Browne, Craig Clarke and Jake Heenan, who is fulfilling his credentials as a genuine openside, led that tackle count. Once again the pack produced go-forward ball for Parks from the secure et piece, and although Connacht rode their luck early in the second half, they remained composed and absorbed everything thrown at them by fullback Ruggero Trevisan, Dion Berryman and the big ball-carrying No 8 Samuela Vunisa.
CONNACHT: J So’oialo, D Poolman, R Henshaw, C Ronaldson, M Healy, D Parks, K Marmion, B Wilkinson, S Henry, R Ah You, M Swift, C Clarke, A Browne, J Heenan, G Naoupu. Replacements: G Duffy for So’oialo (42 mins), J Harris-Wright for Henry (44 mins), R Loughney for Ah You (46), A Muldowney for Swift (54 mins), M Fifita for Heenan and D McSharry for Henshaw (65), JP Cooney for Wilkinson (67), P O’Donohoe for Marmion 70).
ZEBRE: R Trevisan, D Berryman, T Iannone, G Garcia, D Odiete, L Orquera, B Leonard, M Aguero, T D’Apice, D Chistolini, M Van Vuren, M Bortalami (cpt), M Bergamasco, A Van Schalkwyk, S Vunisa. Replacements: L Sarto for Odiete (41 mins), D Giazzon for D’Apice (51), K Ratuvou for Garcia (58 mins), A De Marchi for M Aguero and L Leibson for de Marchi ( 60 mins) , E Caffini for Bortalami (67), A Chillon for Trevisan (70), F Cristiano for Bergamaso (73 mins), M Aguero for De Marchi (80 mins).
Referee: I Davies (Wales).