Connacht edge past Zebre
Connacht completed a hard earned double over Zebre as they wrapped up the Heineken Cup pool stages with a 25-20 victory.
The first half at the Sportsground passed with few incidents of note, Connacht gaining the upper hand thanks to three penalties and a drop goal from Dan Parks. Eric Elwood's men led 12-6 at half-time, with Daniel Halangahu landing a penalty double for Zebre.
A penalty try should have inspired further tries from the home side, but Halangahu's boot closed the gap for the Italians and winger Ruggero Trevisan's well executed try set up a tense conclusion at 19-17. Halangahu's fifth penalty goal had Zebre 11 minutes away from a famous first win, however Parks split the posts on two more occasions for a handsome 20-point haul.
A firm long range penalty strike from Parks edged the hosts ahead, but they were penalised for not rolling away from the restart, allowing Halangahu to bring the Italians level. Parks answered back with a neatly slotted kick from inside the 22 as Connacht improved their accuracy, using their strong set piece game to dictate proceedings.
Although captain Nathan White was part of a commanding front row, they were unable to hammer home that advantage and relied again on the boot of Parks. The former Scotland international drilled over a drop goal while he had a penalty advantage to move the westerners 9-3 clear.
But Connacht's own errors gave the Italians the opportunity to hit back swiftly, and Australian Halangahu stepped up to split the posts from distance. Giovanbattista Venditti, who was tidy in his clearing and covering, and Mauro Bergamasco, the heartbeat of the visitors' pack, led the pool's bottom-placed team in terms of work-rate.
With the try-lines not threatened at both ends, a third successful penalty from Parks put six points between the sides at the break. Parks kicked Connacht to within five metres of the whitewash early in the second period, and the pressure took its toll.
Zebre leaked a penalty from the ensuing lineout maul and then two scrum infringements, with White, Jason Harris-Wright and Brett Wilkinson dominating their front row opponents, led to a penalty try. Parks converted but there was no sign of Zebre wilting as Bergamasco willed his team-mates forward and Connacht indiscipline gave them further scoring chances. Halangahu continued his strong showing with the boot, firing over a quick-fire penalty brace after 49 and 51 minutes.
Zebre's sudden resurgence almost erased Connacht's lead as they broke from a scrum on the 10-metre line, centres Roberto Quartaroli and Matteo Pratichetti punching the hole which led to Trevisan scoring out wide. The difficult conversion was missed by Halangahu, leaving Connacht just two points ahead with Parks suffering his first miss entering the final quarter.
Halangahu's lead score in the 69th minute set up a nervy finish, but a ruck offence ensured that Parks restored Connacht's advantage just two minutes later. Then a strong run from Henshaw helped set up the insurance score - a second drop goal from Parks - as Connacht triumphed in Elwood's last European match in charge of the Irish province.