Connacht hold off Zebre rally to sign off with narrow win from URC campaign

The hosts were leading by 14 points after 26 minutes but were made to sweat for their win at the Sportsground.

Connacht's Ultan Dillane celebrates after the  game.
Connacht's Ultan Dillane celebrates after the game.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

Connacht 22

Zebre 20

Daire Walsh reports at the Sportsground 

IT WAS FAR closer than most had predicted, but Connacht ultimately signed off on an inconsistent United Rugby Championship campaign with a narrow triumph over Zebre at the Sportsground this evening.

The prospect of a close-run affair seemed unlikely when tries from Kieran Marmion, Niall Murray and Eoghan Masterson propelled the westerners into a 17-3 lead with just 26 minutes gone on the clock. Along with replacements Ultan Dillane, Abraham Papali’I and Sammy Arnold, Masterson was making his final appearance for Connacht, but the visitors did their utmost to spoil the party for this quartet.

Having played second fiddle to their Irish hosts for the bulk of the opening hour, tries from Matteo Nocera and Enrico Lucchin provided Zebre with a glimmer of hope in the closing minutes. Connacht rode this late storm to make it nine wins from 18 in the inaugural URC, but it was a far from vintage display overall by Andy Friend’s charges.

Zebre edged in front during the early exchanges with a Carlo Canna penalty – after his opposite number Jack Carty had been penalised for not releasing – but Connacht proceeded to take control of the contest.

At the end of a prolonged attacking move that featured strong carries forward from Tom Daly and Alex Wootton, Marmion crossed over for a simple finish to the left of the posts. While Carty was wide of the mark off a tricky conversion attempt on the left-wing, Connacht had their tails up and subsequently doubled their lead in the 17th-minute.

Kildare native Cian Prendergast recently put pen to paper on a long-term contract with the province and is fast establishing himself as a first-team regular down in Galway. He was showing for possession at every available opportunity and his delicate offload released lock Murray for another unconverted five-pointer.

Prendergast was joined in the back-row by the departing Masterson, who was eager to leave an indelible mark on his 119th and final appearance for Connacht.

After latching onto the back of a line-out maul, the blindside flanker dotted down beyond the whitewash for his side’s third try. Carty finally opened his account from his third effort at goal and while there was still a lot of rugby left to play, Connacht already looked set for a comfortable victory.

Their Parma counterparts weren’t prepared to throw in the towel just yet, however, and Lorenzo Pani’s clinical finish deep into first-half stoppage-time left just nine points (17-8) between the sides at the interval.

Strong Zebre defence had denied Connacht an opportunity to secure a bonus point before the opening period had reached a conclusion, but a fourth try finally arrived for the hosts nine minutes after the resumption. Now at the end of his third campaign with the western province, winger John Porch side-stepped his way past the retreating Jacopo Trulla before touching down with considerable aplomb.

In the direct aftermath of this score, scrum-half Colm Reilly was the first Connacht player to be introduced off the bench. By the 61st-minute, all bar one of their replacements – the Brive-bound Arnold – had been added to the mix and with Zebre head coach Emiliano Bergamaschi doing likewise, the flow of the game was significantly disrupted.

There was a massive roar when Dillane took over from Gavin Thornbury in the second-row on the hour mark, but the 19-times capped Ireland international found himself on the back-foot for the vast majority of the closing-quarter.

The visitors had just one league win to their name in advance of this contest, but were remarkably close to registering a second during a frantic finale. Nocera made a big impact after replacing Eduardo Bello in the Zebre front-row and he powered over the Connacht line to offer his troops renewed hope with 13 minutes remaining.

Despite these warning signs, Connacht couldn’t establish attacking territory at the opposite end of the pitch and leaked another try to inside centre Lucchin on 78 minutes.

Had Canna added the bonuses to Nocera’s five-pointer, he would have been left with a chance to restore parity with the final whistle fast approaching. Instead, his previous wayward strike meant supplying the extras to Lucchin’s superb individual score could only reduce the gap to two points and Connacht did just enough to hold off their plucky opponents.

Connacht Scorers

Tries: Kieran Marmion, Niall Murray, Eoghan Masterson, John Porch

Conversions: Jack Carty [1 from 4]

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Zebre Scorers

Tries: Lorenzo Pani, Matteo Nocera, Enrico Lucchin

Conversions: Carlo Canna [1 from 3]

Penalties: Carlo Canna [1 from 1]

CONNACHT: Oran McNulty; John Porch, Tom Farrell (Sammy Arnold ’69), Tom Daly, Alex Wootton; Jack Carty (Conor Fitzgerald ’53), Kieran Marmion (Colm Reilly ’51); Denis Buckley (Matthew Burke ’59), Dylan Tierney-Martin (Dave Heffernan ’59), Finlay Bealham (Sam Illo ’59); Gavin Thornbury (Ultan Dillane ’60), Niall Murray; Eoghan Masterson (Abraham Papali’I ’61), Seán Masterson, Cian Prendergast.

ZEBRE: Lorenzo Pani; Jacopo Trulla, Franco Smith Jr (Junior Laloifi ’64), Enrico Lucchin, Asaeli Tuivuaka; Carlo Canna, Nicolo Casilio (Alessandro Fusco ’60); Danilo Fischetti (Paolo Buonfiglio ’61), Luca Bigi (Giampietro Ribaldi ’54), Eduardo Bello (Matteo Nocera ’61); David Sisi, Andrea Zambonin (Leonard Krumov ’59); Luca Andreani (Ross Vintcent ’60), Iacopo Bianchi, Taina Fox-Matamua (Massimo Ceciliani ’79).

Referee: Adam Jones (WRU).

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