Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Zebre must start to register crucial points

Heineken horror: Gullo Palazanni of Zebre looks on during the heavy European defeat by Saracens last weekend

iT just doesn't get any easier for Zebre. That ominous feeling that was about the place at having to face Saracens in their back-to-back Heineken Cup clashes became a deeply disturbing reality for all involved with the region.

And last Saturday, well, proved to be a new low point in the Italian franchise's short history as they were sent well and truly packing from Allianz Park off the back of a 64-3 tanking by Mark McCall's rampant squad.

The nine tries Sarries scored ensured that Zebre had managed to concede a shocking 103 points over the course of both the pool three double-header and Chris Ashton's injury time score ensured that the Italians' line had been crossed 14 times over the course of the two weekends.

And in reply, well it obviously wasn't good. Back rower Samu Vunisa got a late consolation try for his side in their first up meeting with Sarries at their Parma home ground, which ended with the visitors winning a mere 39-10.

It all looked horrible for Zebre and, indeed, it was but Europe represents far too challenging terrain for the Italians, especially with Toulouse also in their pool.

The PRO12, though, is a different country entirely and though they haven't won since their seismic victory at Cardiff Blues back in late September – their first ever victory – the six league games which have followed have largely brought them narrow defeats and one agonising draw with the Scarlets at Stadio XXV Aprile.

Even so, much damage will potentially have been done to their psyche off the back of their experience with Saracens, which will be quite a challenge for head coach Andrea Cavinato as he attempts to get his charges up for the trip to Belfast.

The knowledge of taking Ulster close to the wire in last month's league meeting over in northern Italy – Mark Anscombe's men escaped with a less than convincing 19-11 victory – will be something to bring nourishment to Zebre's rather battered ranks, but Cavinato and his experienced skipper Marco Bortolami know only too well that they simply have to deliver rather more than honourable defeats.

Yes, at least they are not bottom of the PRO12 pile – they are ahead of Connacht by a mere point – but should they be overtaken by Pat Lam's westerners, who host the Dragons tomorrow, you would fear for the psychological damage this could do to Zebre's outlook.

It could be a case of damage limitation at Ravenhill and then focusing to go all out in their festive back-to-back PRO12 clashes with local rivals Treviso with a trip to the Stadio Monigo up first. The aim will certainly be to go one better than last season when Zebre fell on both occasions.

They have reshuffled their back row from the Saracens tanking with Mauro Bergamasco out injured and Vunisa not involved, Nicola Cattina has moved from the flank to number eight while Filippo Cristiano comes in for Bergamasco and Filippo Ferranini, who is returning from injury, is the man who slots into the openside for Cattina.

They know the portents aren't looking good when it comes to winning at Ravenhill but Bortolami will have to rally the troops and hope, largely against hope, that Ulster aren't at the races.

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