'It's a head-scratcher' - Kieran Keane perplexed as dismal Connacht slump to Zebre loss
Zebre 24 Connacht 10
Kieran Keane mentioned a few weeks ago that he didn't have any grey hair when he arrived in Galway in August and soon he may have little left at all as he tries to work out just why Connacht are firing blanks.
Saturday's Guinness PRO14 display at Stadio Lanfranchi in Parma was one of Connacht's poorest in a long time and more than once in the post-match interview Keane referred to the display as a "head-scratcher".
His men, having garnered a couple of bonus points in Cardiff the previous week, somehow led by a point despite all their shortcomings with 13 minutes left, but they were blown away by a strong finish by Zebre.
It was no more than Michael Bradley's men deserved and a more effective attack - and perhaps a better return on some of the 50-50 calls by the match officials - would have yielded a bonus point for a resurgent Zebre.
Bradley soldiered for seven years during the most difficult period in Connacht's history and he knows that the project in Parma won't happen overnight, but with Conor O'Shea heading up the national side and former IRFU technical director Steve Aboud beavering away on the development front in the background, the Irish influence in shaping Italian rugby is significant.
Bradley has made progress since moving there in the summer, taking out Ulster earlier in the campaign, and they would be higher in the table had they not been pipped by the Cheetahs and one of his other previous clubs, Edinburgh.
But they learned from those setbacks and when the game was in the melting pot on Saturday, only Zebre had the wherewithal to push for victory as Connacht floundered in an alarming performance.
"I think we played well in the first half, didn't get the reward for it," said Bradley. "We just asked the boys to do the same again in the second-half and it should come, and it happened to come for us. Obviously we've very happy.
"We were pipped by Edinburgh and the Cheetahs, so it was good to close out the victory and pull away at the end. It gives us something to build on."
It was hard for Keane to find positives in the ashes of the defeat and he now faces a task to get them right for their Challenge Cup games coming up against Brive.
You would suspect that Connacht might harbour genuine notions of pushing on from their 2016 PRO12 success and bidding for the Challenge Cup title, but there was little in Parma on Saturday to suggest this was a side on an upward trajectory.
Certainly, Keane struggled to pinpoint what they need to correct when he addressed the sole reporter at the post-match press conference.
"I am disappointed. It's a bit of a head-scratcher that one. Some individuals didn't endear themselves very well did they? Some pretty average performances. It's what we have to get right. The changing room is deathly quiet, everybody is reflecting," he said.
"I'm going to have to sit down and figure it out with some of the coaches. It's a head-scratcher for me."
Zebre led 6-0 at the break, but Tom Farrell, one of the few Connacht players to impress, pounced for a try five minutes after the restart.
Steve Crosbie converted and when Carlo Canna and Jack Carty exchanged penalties, it left Connacht 10-9 ahead with 13 minutes left and the prospect of a first away win in the PRO14 seemed on, despite the deficiencies in the performance.
Zebre, though, got their act together and blew them away.
South African Johan Meyer scored and then Canna, one of seven Italians to play against the Springboks the previous week, added a drop goal and Gio Venditti rubbed salt in the wound with a late try.
That meant Connacht, beaten in Parma last year for the first time, left empty-handed - only the second time in 14 visits to Italy that they failed to at least pick up a bonus point.
"That just exacerbates the issue for us," added Keane.
Zebre: M Minozzi; M Bellini (C Gaffney 78), G Bisegni, T Boni, G Venditti; C Canna, M Violi (G Palazzani 69); A Lovotti, O Fabiani, D Chistolini (E Bello 57); L Krumov, G Biagi (D Sisi 57); M Mbanda (J Sarto 78), J Meyer, R Giammarioli.
Connacht: T O'Halloran; C Kelleher, P Ahki, T Farrell, M Healy; S Crosbie (J Carty 59), K Marmion (J Mitchell 59); D Buckley, S Delahunt (D Heffernan 72), F Bealham (C Carey 72); U Dillane, J Cannon; E Masterson, J Connolly (N Dawai 54), J Muldoon.
Ref - George Clancy (IRFU)