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Zebre hitting a new level but big ask awaits in Ulster

By Michael Sadlier

The relief was palpable last Sunday in Parma for those of a Cardiff disposition as their 41-26 win not only meant that the Blues had got their season off to the perfect start but they had also avoided falling to a third consecutive PRO12 defeat at the hands of their hosts, Zebre.

It was nearly a year ago that the Italians sent shockwaves through the league by winning their first game and doing so at the Arms Park as well. And not to be outdone, Zebre then took the Blues' scalp again, this time at the Stadio XXV Aprile, on the first Saturday in March.

Indeed, the Italians kicked on from their second downing of the Blues to put together quite a strong finish to the season with some notable results in Parma.

They beat the Ospreys – ending their interest in the play-offs – and also took down Edinburgh while drawing with the Dragons.

It all meant that they actually threatened the unthinkable and came desperately close to finishing above local rivals Treviso – in the end just a point separated them and kept Zebre bottom where, frankly, everyone expected them to be in the first place.

Indeed, had Zebre actually managed to finish above their fellow Italians, then they would have qualified for this season's European Champions Cup which would have been unthinkable at the beginning of the campaign.

So there is plenty of positive thinking around Parma these days even if most will readily admit that Treviso have looked like a side in steep decline in recent times.

And with European qualification having been reconfigured to essentially mean that the PRO12 has been transformed into a mini-league between Zebre and Treviso for the Champions Cup place, there is a growing belief that the franchise who have been bottom of the league since their formation in 2012 just might do it this time.

And even though the side coached by Andrea Cavinato lost out on Sunday, they did show some notable strength up front and scored three tries. They also gave Ulster two close run games last season and feel that they can repeat the dose if not go one better.

Cavinato believes that his side can finish between seventh and ninth and to do so he knows they are going to have to pick up more than the five wins they achieved last time out.

They have been busy during the off-season and have signed South Africans Andries Ferreira and Hennie Daniller from the Cheetahs while their most high profile recruit is the veteran Mirco Bergamasco, who can play several backline positions and now joins up with brother Mauro at the club.

Mind you, it will be a massive challenge for Zebre and this first month will be particularly demanding as after tonight at the Kingspan they are also away at Munster before then hosting Ulster with that game being one they will have targeted to get a result from.

The team they have selected for the first leg of their Irish double-header is much altered from the one which togged out against the Blues with only ex-All Black Brendon Leonard, Gonzalo Garcia and Daniller being retained in the backline.

Up front, half the pack have been changed with the veteran Mauro Bergamasco starting at blindside flanker.

This looks like being a hard old week for them though.

Belfast Telegraph

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