Guinness Pro 12: Connacht 43 - Zebre 3
By Rob Murphy
For starters, let this be the end of it. This Connacht rugby team is better than anything we’ve ever seen before in the west of Ireland. In every conceivable way, the team, the province, the franchise, the club, call it what you will, is now on a proper level in European club rugby, with shoulders back ready to challenge any team that comes their way.
It’s taken a long time and it was fitting that the night after the 40th anniversary of the first major breakthrough for rugby in the west when Ian Kirkpatrick’s New Zealand visited Galway for the first time and took on (and beat 25-3) 15 brave men in green at a packed Sportsground in 1974, that a man who has played 100 times for the team that wear an all black kit and is a bona fide rugby legend, would take to the field in the green of Connacht.
Mils Muliaina is here to inspire and his first appearance gave us a sign of what he could deliver. Weaving counter attacks, offloads that deceived the eye, half breaks and side steps that stood Zebre players up and left them floundering. It was all there but very much packaged as a foretaste of what might be to come should his fitness improve and injuries stay away.
When he went off, he was replaced by 21 year Darragh Leader from Galway city. The young Galwegians flyer was back from three weeks training with Ireland, from acting as 24th man in the Georgia game and running through all the drills in Lansdowne Road. Here he was coming on for a world rugby star in his home province colours. The environment is right.
So stop waiting for the inevitable collapse, or staring at the Pro12 table as if its a sunrise that might never be experienced again. Get used to the fact that Connacht have left the bottom quagmire of Pro12 rugby behind and are now ensconced on the fringe of play offs and very much in the race for a top six spot and European Champions Cup Rugby qualification.
The province has finally become a proper professional rugby organisation off the field, the little details are being attended to better than ever before, the supporters are better and coming in more numbers, the coaching is better and getting more out of the team, the backing from the IRFU is better and paying dividends and the players are better, much better than anything we’ve seen in the past.
We didn’t learn this on Friday night. A five try drubbing of the worst starting fifteen you are likely to see at the Sportsground in Pro12 rugby is hardly cause for mass celebration. It was a professionally ruthless but far from error free dismissal of an Italian side shorn of their front line internationals and demonstrating to everyone that there simply isn’t the strength in depth to be competitive in such a scenario.
The first try was neatly finished by Danie Poolman in the corner, the third of the season for the man most likely to top the province’s try scoring stats this year. The final pass was perfectly timed and came from Mr Muliaina. Ian Porter missed a few kicks but notched four penalties all the same for a 17-3 half time lead.
After the break, Zebre imploded conceding two yellow cards in a minute, the second of which was questionable on what was the first collapsed scrum of the half. Connacht got a penalty try from that, a pushover try touched down from Mick Kearney, while replacement half backs John Cooney and Jack Carty rounded off the rout with tries in the final quarter.
The lineout misfired badly again and will be a major focus in training this week, but Jason Harris Wright and new Auckland signing Tom McCartney on his debut were wayward with the throw and the timing was off too. Dan McFarland has a challenge to restructure this area as the Scarlets will target it next Saturday but he has proven more than adept at such alterations in the past.
Ah yes, the Scarlets. They come to Galway on Saturday night (7:45) with the Sky Sports cameras in town for the first time. There’s a reason why we’ve chosen this moment to highlight the new found status of the Connacht team. This very game. There quite simply has never been a more important one in Celtic League/Pro12 rugby history for the province.
Let’s explain why, Connacht are targeting a top six finish for a reason. That will guarantee qualification for the elite European Champions Cup next year. It will be a highest ever finish too. In the Pro12 seven teams gain entry to the competition formerly known as the Heineken Cup.
The name change might be baffling and the organisation running it might be a bumbling mess at the moment but the new system of qualification has given the Pro12 a much needed boost. Four of the seven places go to the highest ranked side from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy. The other three places are accounted for by league rankings.
Two of Munster, Leinster and Ulster will fill those places, the other will be the top Irish side. That’s a certainty. They have far too much firepower not to be in the top five. The Ospreys and Glasgow will also be there without question.
That leaves the final spot and at the moment, it looks like a straight shoot out between Connacht and the Scarlets who are just a solitary point behind them. Even allowing for all the progress made, the new signings, the international breakthroughs for Robbie Henshaw, Kieran Marmion, Rodney Ah you and so on, the Welsh province have a little edge overall in terms of experience at the top end of the able and talent but it is far from insurmountable.
The head to head games with the Welsh, next Saturday and again in mid February could be absolutely critical in the race for sixth. Connacht need a win minimum next week to keep to the fore in the battle. They are well equipped for the battle. The biggest game of the season awaits, a performance befitting of it is the target and judging by their clinical dispatching of Zebre last week, they are limbering up well.
Connacht: M Muliaina; D Poolman, B Aki, D McSharry, M Healy; M Nikora, I Porter; D Buckley, J Harris-Wright, R Loughney; M Kearney, Q Roux; J Muldoon (capt), W Faloon, G Naoupu.
Replacements: T McCartney for Harris-Wright (30 mins), JP Cooney for Porter (49 mins), F Bealham for Loughney, E McKeon for Naoupu (both 52 mins), A Browne for Kearney (54 mins), J Carty for Nikora, D Leader for Muliaina (both 62 mins), D Heffernan for Buckley (73 mins).
Zebre: H Daniller; D Odiete, G Bisegni, M Pratichetti, M Visentin; E Padovani, B Leonard; A De Marchi, O Fabiani, L Redolfini; A Ferreira, V Bernabo; M Bergamasco (capt), F Cristiano, A Van Schalkwyk.
Replacements: Sarto for Van Schalkwyk (half-time), L Leibson for Redolfini, Santamaria for Fabiano, Lovotti for De Marchi (all 46 mins), L Redolfini for Cristiano (61), A Chillon for Leonard (both 63 mins), E Padovani for M Bergamasco (69 mins), F Cristiano for Redolfini (71 mins), D Berryman for Visentin (72 mins). Yellow cards: C Filippo (25 mins) , A Ferreira (60 mins), A Lovotti (61 mins).
Referee: Ben Whitehouse (Wales)