Connacht’s Champions Cup qualification ambitions were dealt a blow after they were beaten 25-22 by Zebre at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi in the Guinness PRO12 on Saturday afternoon.
It was a first ever victory for Zebre over the province as the Italian side ran out deserving winners to halt Connacht’s recent run of good from that had seen them win four of their last five.
On a warm day in Parma, skipper John Muldoon won the coin toss and chose for Connacht to play with the sun at their backs in the opening half.
That tactic paid immediate dividends as Connacht ran the ball from their own 22 in the opening minute with full-back Josh Rowland, making his first start, offloading for winger Stacey Ili to score the first try.
John Cooney missed the tricky conversion and Zebre were soon off the mark thanks to a Carlo Canna penalty on eight minutes.
The injured Ili was forced off after 15 minutes with replacement Craig Ronaldson making an immediate impact as he crossed a minute later after combing with Danie Poolman.
Cooney’s conversion was good and Connacht led 12-3 after a bright start.
A third try very nearly followed moments later as Connacht went for the corner off a penalty with Andrew Browne held up over the line.
A Connacht knock-on and subsequent high tackle allowed Zebre relieve the pressure and they took advantage of more indiscipline to kick themselves deep into Connacht territory.
The Italians then mauled their way over the line with Derick Minnie credited with the try and Canna’s conversion made it 12-10 after 27 minutes.
A second Canna three-pointer after a scrum penalty nine minutes before the interval gave Zebre the lead for the first time and despite massive Connacht pressure before the break, the hosts defended manfully to lead at half-time.
The wind was really in Zebre sails when they touched down within a minute of the restart as Kayle van Zyl did superbly to field a high kick with Tommaso Boni eventually touching down in the left corner.
Canna missed the conversion and Connacht responded immediately as Cooney kicked his first penalty on 47 minutes to reduce the deficit and make it 18-15.
As the game entered the final 15 minutes, Connacht were primed to snatch the win with Zebre giving away a number of penalties and Minnie sent to the sin bin as a result.
However, that was the moment when Zebre struck the killer blow as they stole a Connacht lineout deep in their own half and stunned the visitors with a length of the field try finished off by Edoardo Padovani.
Marcello Violi’s conversion was good and Connacht trailed 25-15 with just 13 minutes remaining.
Zebre went down to 14 again when Matteo Pratichetti was yellow-carded on 74 minutes as Connacht threw everything at the hosts.
The visitors were finally rewarded when Rowland scored his first Connacht try in the corner with two minutes remaining and Ronaldson added the conversion.
It was too little too late however as the hosts held on for a deserved victory.
Connacht: Josh Rowland; Danie Poolman, Tom Farrell (Eoin Griffin, 68), Bundee Aki, Stacey Ili (inj Craig Ronalson, 12); Jack Carty, John Cooney (Caolin Blade, 48); Denis Buckley (Ivan Soroka, 76), Tom McCartney (Dave Heffernan, 55), Finlay Bealham (Dominic Robertson-McCoy, 70); Quinn Roux (James Cannon, 69); Andrew Browne; Sean O’Brien (Eoghan Masterson, 57), Eoin McKeon, John Muldoon (captain).