Wednesday 21 February 2018

Ten-try Connacht edge closer to Champions Cup quarter-finals with massive rout of Zebre

Connacht 66 Zebre 21

14 January 2017; Tiernan O’Halloran of Connacht is congratulated by teammate Craig Ronaldson after scoring his side's third try during the European Rugby Champions Cup pool 2 round 5 match between Connacht and Zebre at the Sportsground in Galway. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
14 January 2017; Tiernan O’Halloran of Connacht is congratulated by teammate Craig Ronaldson after scoring his side's third try during the European Rugby Champions Cup pool 2 round 5 match between Connacht and Zebre at the Sportsground in Galway. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

It took a while for this turkey shoot to take off but when Pat Lam’s men finally found their trigger, the bullets kept coming.

Finlay Bealham secured the bonus point after 28 minutes but his side had already coughed up a 7-0 lead to trail 14-7 before then as a game of harum scarum seemed set to turn into a game of hari kari.

Zebre, however, are simply too awful to persist at any reasonable level while Connacht’s early error count simply couldn’t continue.

Given the events in the RDS on Friday, they will look to Leinster’s rout against the Italians for encouragement in terms of being a warm-up, as they prepare to salvage enough from Toulouse next week to reach a top flight quarter-final for the first time in their history.

Denis Buckley hobbled off; aside from that, there were no new injury concerns as his side enjoyed a ten-try romp.

Healy scored the opener after just 73 second, from the first set-piece, an ugly enough line-out but a stunningly beautiful back-line move.

Usual scrum-half John Cooney acted as a superb pivot, allowing Rory Parata’s clever line to gobble up a significant defensive hole before Tiernan O’Halloran cut back inside. He then passed to his right, into the space where Healy was scampering at pace.

Untouched, he dotted down; unperturbed, Cooney slotted the extras. It seemed easy. Too easy perhaps.

Zebre earned a swift foothold in the 22, winning a maul scrum and, when Carlo Canna skipped a pass wide to the right, Johan Meyer darted in ahead of a poor tackle attempt from Sean O’Brien to score a soft try. Canna converted to level in the 8th minute.

Connacht maintained their enigmatic approach even as the error count rose accordingly; Zebre were being invited to the party though.

Especially when Connacht persisted in erroring in their own 22; Federico Ruzza scored his side’s second try from another poor turnover, barrelling past Eoin McKeon and Lewis Stevenson for another soft, defensive leak.

Canna knocked the two-pointer through the sticks for 7-14 and already, 12 minutes in, the locals were howling in anguish. Cooney was fretful too.

His side’s second try, which he converted, in the 19th minute, calmed matters. He was avoided for two phases before Kieran Marmion’s delicious off-load fed Sean O’Brien, whose great line, juggle and carry brought Craig Ronaldson with him over the half-way line.

Ronaldson immediately found Cooney on his left shoulder and he finished with a darting run. They erred from the restart though soon purred once more, off-loading at will. They kicked to the corner as pressure told.

Awarded a penalty, Connacht played on; Cooney chipping through a hard defence with a shot to nothing and Tiernan O’Halloran did well to ground the wickedly hopping pill; the conversion made it 21-14 in the 25th minute.

The crowd were getting their money’s worth. They got what they had paid for when the bonus point arrived in the 28th minute, a second attempt at a catch and drive hauling Finlay Bealham across the whitewash.

Cooney converted his most difficult effort thus far, wide from the left. 28-14 by the half-hour and now the crowd could start swiping for their calculator apps.

After a high tackle on Niyi Adeolokun, it was the bin for Lloyd Greef. His side shared the eponymous emotion. Prop Pietro Ceccarelli soon joined him.

Connacht scored their fifth from what would have been a penalty try from a scrum, had not Kieran Marmion pounced to score for 33-14. John Cooney missed the easy kick as Denis Buckley hobbled off.

To say Zebre were hobbling would be flattery.

Connacht scored their sixth; Cooney’s touch-finder bounced horribly but still earned an attacking line-out; the move was more orthodox; Marmion sending Ronaldson bouncing clear, untouched.

The whistle blew, 40-14. The white flag had long since been blown away towards the sea.

Just for emphasis, a hat-trick of pathetic tackles allowed Healy to nab his second try from the second act’s first play.

Healy turned provider from the next play to sweep man of the match O’Halloran in for his second against the 14 men. Marmion scored a deserved second try before taking a deserved rest as Connacht hit 61 points in the 56th minute.

Mattia Bellini crossed for Zebre to humbling, ironic cheers, as if merely a reminder that there were still two teams on the field.

Caolin Blade added a tenth score as a European record, the 75-8 win against Spaniards Cetranza in the Challenge Cup a decade ago, loomed. That it didn’t was hardly consolation for the sad visitors as the 5,607 locals basked in almost spring sunshine.

They wait in hope to see if the real thing still shines on them later this year.

Scorers: Connacht - Matt Healy (2), Kieran Marmion (2), Tiernan O’Halloran (2), John Cooney, Finlay Bealham, Craig Ronaldson, Caolan Blade. Cons: John Cooney (8)

Zebre - Johan Meyer, Federico Ruzza, Mattia Bellini. Cons: Carlo Canna (3)

Connacht - T O'Halloran (D Poolman 59); N Adeolokun, R Parata, C Ronaldson (T Farrell 43), M Healy, J Cooney, K Marmion (C Blade 56); D Buckley (JP Cooney 38), T McCartney (D Heffernan 50), F Bealham (J Andress 47), L Stevenson, J Cannon, S O'Brien (J Connolly 50), E McKeon, J Muldoon capt (N Dewai 47).

Zebre - K Baker; L Greeff, E Padovani, M Bellini, G Palazzani; C Canna (S Bordoli 64), M Violi (C Engelbrecht 71); A Lovotti (A de Marchi 61), C Festuccia (O Fabiani 47), P Ceccarelli (D Chistolin 60), G Koegelenberg (J Furno 47), V Bernabo (D Minnie 60), M Mbanda, J Meyer (G Biagi 75), F Ruzza.

Ref - T Foley (RFU).

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