Saturday 24 February 2018

'White-line fever' leaves Elwood hot and bothered

Zebre 10 Connacht 19

Ian Bransfield At the Stadio XXV Aprile

Eric Elwood was in sanguine mood following Connacht's opening round victory against Zebre, despite his side's failure to pick up what might have been a crucial bonus point.

In truth, a royal flush was never on the cards for the westerners, who were made to dig deep by the whipping boys of European rugby. Connacht were forced to settle for just a single try in the end, scored by John Muldoon midway through the second half.

Zebre also scored one of their own, but a superb kicking display by Dan Parks kept them at bay throughout, ultimately denying them a losing bonus point. When it was all done and dusted, Elwood lamented his side's inability to cross for more tries, but was, nevertheless, content to have come away with four points in the bag

"An away win in the Heineken Cup is a really positive start for us," said the former out-half.

"But we're a little bit disappointed with the manner in which we won it, because we felt we created a lot of opportunities, which we didn't take.

"We don't want to sound greedy, of course, and we realise that a win is a win. We'd have taken that from the start. But during the game when you see how well you are doing to create chances, it leaves you feeling a little disappointed that we didn't convert more."

Indeed, at one stage it felt as if Connacht were engaged in rugby's equivalent of the slow bicycle race, such was their wastefulness in front of the line.

The 10 minutes directly after half-time -- during which Mauro Bergamasco was in the sin bin -- made for particularly hard viewing

Up in the director's zone, Elwood seemed to be getting greyer by the second as one by one his troops spurned chance after chance.

Tiernan O'Halloran and Willie Faloon were the culprits-in-chief, both ignoring better options outside with the try line in sight.

Parks, meanwhile, landed a cross-field kick directly into the path of three unmarked players, but not one of them managed to get their mitts on the ball as it skidded into touch.

"We spoke about being composed and building phases to sustain pressure," remarked Elwood. "But we seemed to suffer from white-line fever every time we got near them."

Just as well, then, that Parks was on his game in terms of marksmanship. The Australian had kicked three from three during the first half to leave Connacht 9-3 ahead. During the same period, his compatriot Daniel Halangahu kicked one for Zebre, but missed two.

Therein lies the value of having a high-percentage goal-kicker on your roster. Had the game taken place one year ago, there is a fair chance that Connacht might have lost.

"That's why we signed him," agreed Elwood.

"When you're playing in big European Cup games you rely on players with experience and with game sense.

"And Dan was very polished this evening in everything he did."

Of the others that shone, Muldoon deserves a mention for his try and so too Eoin Griffin and Mike McCarthy, who both burst their lungs in the preceding kick-chase, gaining 30 metres on Bergamasco and forcing him to give away a penalty close to his own posts.

Muldoon then used all his wits to take a quick tap and score the game-breaking try, bagging the Man of the Match award in the process. That particular accolade could and probably should have gone to Robbie Henshaw, however, after another stirring display at full-back.

"He'll definitely play for Ireland," purred Elwood in admiration. "The only question is whether he'll play at 13 or 15."

It's a pity he can't do both, for Connacht will need every available weapon when they host Quins next week.

However, at least they'll face them with a win under their belts, which was what this Italian job was really all about.

Zebre -- D Halangahu; G Venditti, M Pratichetti, G Garcia (capt) (R Trevisan 65) , S Sinoti (L Sarto 64); L Orquera (F Ferrarini 55), T Tebaldi (L Martinelli 65); S Perugini (M Aguero 56), D Giazzon (C Festuccia 53), L Redolfini (C Fazzari 53); Q Geldenhuys, J Sole; N Belardo (M Van Vuren 53), M Bergamasco, A Van Schalkwyk.

Connacht -- R Henshaw; T O'Halloran, E Griffin, D McSharry (M Fifita 70), F Vainikolo; D Parks, K Marmion (D Moore 70); D Buckley (R Ah You 50), E Reynecke, N White (capt); M Swift (D Gannon 70), M McCarthy; J Muldoon, W Faloon (J O'Connor 57), G Naoupu.

Ref -- L Hodges (WRU).

Irish Independent

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