Ili crowns first start with hat-trick as Connacht maintain momentum
Zebre 7 Connacht 52
Pat Lam may have fielded his youngest side this season but Connacht encountered little difficulty in Parma as they ran in eight tries to keep their Champions Cup quarter-final hopes firmly on track.
It's hard to believe that just a month ago Zebre had Connacht in serious trouble when they led 22-10 at the interval before their Pro12 clash was abandoned due to a storm. But the Pro12 champions have turned their season around and while Zebre made ten changes from the side which was hammered 82-14 away to Wasps last week, they were hopelessly out of their depth at Stadio Lanfranchi yesterday.
And Connacht were in a fairly unforgiving mood. Lam has again cranked up the battle for places at the Sportsground.
Only five of the side which started the Pro12 final were on the field from the outset and they delivered Connacht's biggest ever win in the Champions Cup.
Six of the tries came from players who weren't even with Connacht back in May, with 25-year-old New Zealander Stacey Ili crowning his first start with a hat-trick, while recruit from Leinster Cian Kelleher grabbed two.
"There's some great performance in there and that's good," said Lam. "I want the headaches for selection.
"The maturity of the group is the key. Guys knowing their jobs, knowing what we need to do, regardless of their age, they can go out and enjoy themselves knowing that they're not out there by themselves."
Connacht were 14-0 in front after hitting the Italians for a brace of tries in a three minute spell.
Ili got the first of his hat-trick after 10 minutes when Jack Carty threaded a ball through. And then a huge hit by Peter Robb on Carlo Canna set up a breakaway try for Carty, with Craig Ronaldson converting both of them.
Connacht were temporarily reduced to 14 men when flanker Sean O'Brien was binned for a deliberate knock-on.
But almost immediately Zebre hooker Olivero Fabiani was red-carded for foul play in an incident on the ground with Quinn Roux. A superb crosskick from Carty sent Ili over for his second try just over a minute after the restart and then a yellow card to centre Tommaso Castello meant it was 13 against 15 and it was no surprise when Connacht got the bonus point through a penalty try.
Connacht did not ease off with the bonus point in the bag and Cian Kelleher, playing at full-back, finished off a flowing movement, with Ronaldson converting to make it 35-0.
Replacement prop Conor Carey also got in on the act when he scored down the right wing to push it out to 40-0.
Connacht's hopes of keeping a clean sheet for the first time in 20 Champions Cup matches were dashed when replacement prop Tommaso D'Apice dived over for the home side, but they finished strongly with Kelleher and Ili scoring.
Zebre - E Padovani; G di Guilio (G d'Onfrio 43), G Bisegni, T Castello (T Boni 59), G Venditti; C Canna, M Violi (G Palazzani 58); A Lovotti (B Postiglioni 66), O Fabiani, P Ceccarelli (G Roan 55); Q Geldenhuys, G Biagi (J Furno 52); M Mbanda (T d'Apice 33), J Meyer, D van Schalkwyk (F Ruzza 63).
Connacht - C Kelleher; N Adeolokun (D Poolman 55), P Robb, C Ronaldson (S O'Leary 57), S Ili; J Carty, K Marmion (C Blade 57); JP Cooney (C Carey 49), S Delahunt (D Heffernan 52), F Bealham (JP Cooney 72); Q Roux, A Browne (U Dillane 59); S O'Brien, J Heenan, J Muldoon (E McKeon 58).
Referee - Mathieu Raynal (FFR)