Connacht Rugby's season is in danger of unravelling after two losses on the bounce in games Kieran Keane would have expected to win.
It is a case of two steps forward and one back for Connacht as they struggle to come to terms with heads-up rugby in a new regime. But these latest two defeats against Cardiff and Zebre away could have an impact on the province’s seasonal ambitions for qualification to next season’s Champions Cup .
The loss to Cardiff can be explained with a couple of questionable refereeing decisions, but Connacht still came away with two bonus points; the defeat to Michael Bradley’s Zebre was considerably worse, no consolation bonus point and a “head-scratcher” for Connacht coach Keane.
“This was a really disappointing result,” he said. “We prepared well all week and were fully aware of the threat they pose, especially at home. The performance was not good enough. The guys are really disappointed as we all are, but we need to pick ourselves up. We are on the road again next week against Brive and we need to build some momentum again.”
Challenge Cup action may well provide Connacht with a much-needed break from Pro 14. But Brive, although just one place above the relegation zone in the Top 14, will not make it any easier in Stade Amédée-Domenech, and Connacht will certainly need to be more physically prepared for the battle having lost there in 2015 by 21-18.
Against Zebre, Connacht were frustrated by a side that, with nine returning internationals, produced a line speed in defence and an eagerness at the breakdown, and Keane’s side never hit the ground running.
They were not helped by a failure to convert chances in the opening half which simply increased Zebre’s confidence. By the end it was a dispirited Connacht, who for the second year in succession, have lost to lowly Dragons and Zebre, coached by former Connacht men.
Connacht enjoyed more possession in the opening 20 minutes, but the score was still 3-0 in favour of the hosts after Italian international outhalf Carlo Canna struck his opening penalty after 10 minutes. In contrast, counterpart Steve Crosbie missed two efforts at goal while Connacht appeared to lack purpose and clinical finishing when opting to run three penalties.
A dominant scrum kept them on the front foot and centre Tom Farrell continued to seek out gaps, but they were hampered by some poor decision making. By the half's end Zebre had taken control, and while fullback Tiernan O'Halloran did well to prevent Giovanbattista Venditti from grounding the ball for what looked like a certain try, Canna added another three-pointer for a 6-0 half-time lead after Eoghan Masterson was yellow-carded.
The tide should have turned after the break when Connacht opened their scoring with a determined restart. And Farrell was quick to react to a loose ball to touch down with Crosbie adding the extras. But the lead did not last long when Canna added a third penalty after 61minutes.
The introduction of Jack Carty and James Mitchell added some impetus to the Connacht attack. And Finlay Bealham had a glorious chance but was unable to control possession just shy of the line, while Cian Kelleher and Carty came close. The only reward was a penalty which Carty kicked to put Connacht ahead by 9-10.
That slim lead, however, was turned on its head by a superb restart from Zebre which was finished when openside Johan Meyer touched down and Canna converted to put them 16-10 in front.
Losing considerable composure, Connacht never recovered, and Zebre completed a comfortable victory with a Canna drop goal and a Giovanbattista Venditti try.
Scoring sequence: 10mins Canna pen 3-0; 41 mins Canna pen 6-0. HT 6-0; 43 mins Farrell try, Crosbie con 6-7; 61 mins Canna pen 9-7; 66 mins Carty pen 9-10; 67 mins Meyer try, Canna con 16-10; 74 mins Canna drop goal 19-10; 76 mins Venditti try 24-10.
Yellow cards: Connacht, E Masterson (41); Zebre, Tommaso Boni (79).
Zebre: M Minozzi; M Bellini, G Bisegni, T Boni, G Venditti; C Canna, M Violi; A Lovotti, O Fabiani, D Chistolini; L Krumov, G Biagi; M Mbanda, J Meyer, R Giammarioli.
Replacements: E Bello for Chistolini and D Sisi for Biagi (55), G Palazzani for Violi (66), C Gaffney for Bellini and J Sarto for Mbando (78).
Connacht: T O'Halloran; C Kelleher, P Ahki, T Farrell, M Healy; S Crosbie, K Marmion; D Buckley, S Delahunt, F Bealham; U Dillane, J Cannon; E Masterson, J Connolly, J Muldoon.
Replacements: N Dawai for Connolly (53); J Carty for Crosbie and J Mitchell for Marmion (57), C Carey for Bealham and D Heffernan for Delahunt (70).
Referee: G Clancy (IRFU)