Record romp sets up Connacht for D-Day in Toulouse
Connacht 66 Zebre 21
Records went tumbling all round at the Sportsground but the key figures which will matter to Pat Lam and Connacht is that they picked up five match points and also boosted their try haul with 10 touchdowns which could yet be decisive in the hunt for quarter-final spots.
They will now head to Toulouse next Sunday having given themselves every chance of reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup for the first time. And Lam, Bristol-bound in a few months, is in no doubt where this game sits in importance as they bid to repeat their 2013 win in Toulouse.
"We're going into probably the biggest game in Connacht's history," said the man who led them to their famous Pro12 title win last May. He also orchestrated the remarkable 16-14 win at Stade Ernest Wallon three years ago and knows it would be some achievement to finish out his four-year term by taking them into the Champions Cup's knockout stages.
His injury crisis has made the defence of the Pro12 crown extremely difficult, and while he had to slot replacement scrum-half John Cooney in at out-half for the first time yesterday, Lam said that being able to train as a unit this week was a bonus after all the disruption.
"I've always said our confidence comes from the training we did," he said. "It was the first time in five weeks that the starting team has completed all of the training sessions. That brought confidence."
Joe Schmidt and Italian coach Conor O'Shea were spectators at a game played in decent conditions but they will have learned little from a bizarre tie where both teams surpassed the record for the most points they have scored in a Champions Cup game.
In the process, Connacht equalled their record win in the competition - a 52-7 success over Zebre in Italy in October - while setting a new benchmark for tries scored in a game, surpassing the eight they recorded in that win in Parma.
They had six of them on the board by the interval, with Zebre playing out the half with 13 men after winger Lloyd Greeff and tighthead prop Pietro Cecarelli were binned. Inevitably Connacht made them pay, with scrum-half Kieran Marmion and returning centre Craig Ronaldson crossing before the interval to lead 40-14.
The bonus point was in the bag before the binnings after Connacht responded well to a Zebre surge which yielded a brace of tries after Matt Healy got the home side off the mark after less than two minutes.
Flanker Johan Meyer and No 8 Federico Ruzza both cracked the home defence for the Italians to lead 14-7 after 12 minutes, but the prospect of a shock never went any further.
Connacht, who lost loosehead Denis Buckley to a foot injury early on, responded well and Cooney crowned his new positioning with a try after a good break by Seán O'Brien.
Cooney ended up converting eight of the 10 tries, going within a couple of points of matching the record 23 points Dan Parks hit against the same opposition three seasons ago.
Cooney created the lead score for Tiernan O'Halloran after 24 minutes with a clever little kick. All that remained to nail then was the bonus point and Connacht duly secured that after 29 minutes when Finlay Bealham, the only forward to score, touched down.
Scorers - Connacht: M Healy (2), T O'Halloran (2), K Marmion (2), J Cooney, F Bealham, C Ronaldson, C Blade tries; J Cooney 8 cons. Zebre: J Meyer, F Ruzza, M Bellini tries; C Canna 3 cons.
Connacht: T O'Halloran (D Poolman 58); N Adeolokun, R Parata, C Ronaldson (T Farrell 43), M Healy; J Cooney, K Marmion (C Blade 55); D Buckley (JP Cooney 38), T McCartney (D Heffernan 47), F Bealham (J Andress 47); L Stevenson, J Cannon; S O'Brien (J Connolly 50-60, blood), E McKeon (J Connolly 67), J Muldoon (N Dawai 47).
Zebre: K Baker; L Greeff, E Padovani, M Bellini, G Palazzani; C Canna (S Bordoli 64), M Violi (C Englebrecht 70); A Lovotti (A de Marchi 56), C Festuccia (O Fabiani 47), P Ceccarelli (D Chistolini 60); G Koegelenberg (J Furno 47), V Bernabo (D Minnie 60); M Mbanda, J Meyer (G Biagi 75), F Ruzza (D Chistolini 37-45).
Referee: T Foley (RFU)
Sunday Indo Sport