Marmion rues failure to push on for bonus
CONNACHT 20 ZEBRE 3
At the closing whistle, a sense of resignation seemed to fall across the old Sportsground like a fine mist.
They are accustomed to oil-rig weather there and the ribald, underdog sounds of defiant people. But barely a whisper of wind rolled in off Galway Bay on Saturday and Connacht, in what might yet prove to be their last home game at Europe's high-table, were left oddly dissatisfied at reaching an unprecedented altitude.
Who would have thought they could arrive at the final weekend of Heineken Cup pool games as potential quarter-finalists?
It looks a momentous long-shot, of course, but then what were the odds on them prising victory from Stade Ernest-Wallon in December?
Pat Lam was at pains to ensure that the palpable frustration Connacht carried to the dressing-room after their seventh consecutive victory over Zebre would not be interpreted as some grand loss of perspective. "You don't take wins lightly in European rugby," he sighed.
But this was a bonus point spurned against opponents who, with 37 minutes remaining, looked about as competitive as shrimp being skewered for a barbecue. Connacht already led 20-3 by then, having overcome a nervy, untidy opening quarter to get half-way to the coveted four-try haul.
That they did not add a single score from there clearly galled Lam, his trust in youth suddenly looking a double-edged sword.
Young fliers like Jack Carty at 10 and Robbie Henshaw at 13 played beautifully in bursts, but Connacht's game-management wasn't always wise or predicated upon the slickest of execution. With Zebre at their mercy, they neglected to keep their boots on the Italians' throats. And the air of anti-climax was clear.
As scrum-half Kieran Marmion reflected afterwards: "We came into the game trying to get five points. We're disappointed because we had plenty of opportunities to do that."
Connacht had looked naive and a little careworn in the opening quarter, their efforts to take the ball wide floundering against aggressive blitz defence. Carty knocked on early in his first Heineken Cup start, then missed his first shot at goal. Minutes later, when a looping Eoin Griffin pass was intercepted for a 50-metre run by Zebre centre Kameli Ratuvou, all manner of warning lights were flickering.
A 16th-minute Luciano Orquera penalty had Zebre leading by the end of that first quarter, but Connacht then seemed to jolt to life when their most capped player, Michael Swift -- an 18th-minute replacement for the injured Mick Kearney -- knocked No 8 Samu Vunisa backwards with a huge hit inside the home '22'.
Moments later, Fionn Carr came arrowing in-field with a storming run that resulted in a Zebre infringement, Carty kicking the penalty.
Marmion was then pulled into a ruck by Filippo Ferrarini after Henshaw's chip ahead, the Italian blindside sin-binned for his crime. Carty converted the kick to make it 6-3 and Connacht were then stretching into a clearing when left-wing Matt Healy touched down in the corner.
It wasn't the cleanest of scores, the TV umpire taking what seemed an age to decide that a midfield fumble by Griffin from Carty's pass had not knocked the ball forward and, then, that Healy's crab-like finish did not represent a double-movement. Carty kicked a glorious conversion from the toes of the Clan Terrace to allow Connacht to slip away to their orange slices with loud approval in their ears.
Three minutes after the resumption, Henshaw knifed cleverly inside the Zebre midfield cover to score and Carty's conversion gave Connacht what looked a drum-roll 17-point advantage.
But, from there, the fireworks fizzled meekly out, the giddiness of a 5,217 attendance slowly giving way to grumbles of frustration.
Healy was deemed to have knocked on just short of the line after some Henshaw brilliance in the 67th minute and, eight minutes later, the left wing was just hauled in by his opposite number Giulio Toniolatti after a brilliant intercept.
Lam had, by then, emptied his bench; Carty and young full-back Daragh Leader coming off to a deserved ovation as experienced duo Dan Parks and Gavin Duffy were sent in for late cameos.
Former Scotland international Parks didn't exactly help his chances of a recall for next weekend's trip to Saracens by failing to find a target with his first three passes.
That pretty much encapsulated the late untidiness of Connacht's effort, an unimpressive Zebre allowed to slip off the premises without sustaining further damage.
And, with European rugby in such flux right now, you couldn't but help wonder if this might be the last Heineken Cup activity the wonderful, weather-loosened old Sportsground might get to host.
For Lam, mind, the concerns were rather more immediate.
"It's a pretty sombre changing room," he sighed in the clubhouse later. "All season I've talked about process. But ultimately, we weren't clinical enough. We had so many opportunities that we didn't take right across the board, so we're pretty disappointed.
"Where we're trying to go as a group, we demand higher standards. We're not asking for things that they can't do. It's things that each player can do. We've got a big week ahead.
"I think everyone in the changing-room knows that across the board, at times, we didn't execute or do the things that we had planned to do."
Outside, the emptied, floodlit old ground was now calm as a millpond. Connacht were still alive in Europe, but left cursing the small things that look set to deny them a quarter-final place. Progress without question. But they might have made the Mardi Gras.
CONNACHT -- D Leader (G Duffy 73); F Carr, R Henshaw, E Griffin, M Healy, J Carty (D Parks), K Marmion (P O'Donoghue 75), B Wilkinson (D Buckley 59), S Henry (J Harris-Wright 46), N White; M Kearney (M Swift 18), A Browne, J Muldoon, J Heenan, E McKeon (G Nauopu).
ZEBRE -- G Palazanni (R Trevisan 52); G Toniolatti, K Ratuvou, G Garcia (R Quartaroli 65), D Berryman (D Odiete 71), L Orquera, A Chillon, M Aguero (D Ryan 60), D Giazzon (T D'Aspice 12), D Chistolini (A de Marchi 60); Q Geldenhuys, G Biagi, F Ferrarini (N Cattina 53), D van Schalkwyk, S Vunisa.
Ref -- N Paterson (SRU)